Introduction

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life, general health, psychological health, and social and economic wellbeing. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP 2011) defines neuropathic pain as 'pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system'. Central neuropathic pain is defined as 'pain caused by a lesion or disease of the central somatosensory nervous system', and peripheral neuropathic pain is defined as 'pain caused by a lesion or disease of the peripheral somatosensory nervous system'.

Neuropathic pain is very challenging to manage because of the heterogeneity of its aetiologies, symptoms and underlying mechanisms (Beniczky et al. 2005). There is often uncertainty regarding the nature and exact location of a lesion or health condition associated with neuropathic pain, particularly in non‑specialist settings. Examples of common conditions that have peripheral neuropathic pain as a symptom are painful diabetic neuropathy, post-herpetic neuralgia, trigeminal neuralgia, radicular pain, post-surgical chronic neuropathic pain, and neuropathic cancer pain (such as, chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, neuropathy secondary to tumour antigens, or caused by direct invasion or compression of neural structures). Examples of conditions that can cause central neuropathic pain include stroke, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. Neuropathic pain can be intermittent or constant, and spontaneous or provoked. Typical descriptions of the pain include terms such as shooting, stabbing, like an electric shock, burning, tingling, tight, numb, prickling, itching and a sensation of pins and needles. People may also describe symptoms of allodynia (pain caused by a stimulus that does not normally provoke pain), hyperalgesia (an increased response to a stimulus that is normally painful), anaesthesia dolorosa (pain felt in an anaesthetic [numb] area or region), and sensory gain or loss (IASP 2011).

A review of the epidemiology of chronic pain found that there is still no accurate estimate available for the population prevalence of neuropathic pain (Smith et al. 2012). For example, the prevalence of neuropathic pain overall has been estimated to be between 6% and 8%, from postal surveys in France (Bouhassira 2008) and the UK (Torrance 2006). However, these estimates came from studies using different questionnaires. Other condition-specific studies have also mirrored the heterogeneous nature of neuropathic pain. For example, painful diabetic neuropathy is estimated to affect between 16% and 26% of people with diabetes (Jensen et al. 2006; Ziegler 2008). Prevalence estimates for post‑herpetic neuralgia range from 8% to 19% of people with herpes zoster when defined as pain at 1 month after rash onset, and 8% when defined as pain at 3 months after rash onset (Schmader 2002).

The development of chronic pain after surgery is also fairly common, with estimates of prevalence ranging from 10% to 50% after many common operations (Shipton 2008). This pain is severe in between 2% and 10% of this subgroup of patients, and many of the clinical features closely resemble those of neuropathic pain (Jung et al. 2004; Mikkelsen et al. 2004; Kehlet et al. 2006). Furthermore, a study of 362,693 computerised records in primary care from the Netherlands estimated the annual incidence of neuropathic pain in the general population to be almost 1% (Dieleman et al. 2008). This considerable variability in estimates of the prevalence and incidence of neuropathic pain and similar conditions from general population studies is likely to be because of differences in the definitions of neuropathic pain, methods of assessment and patient selection (Smith and Torrance 2010, Smith et al. 2012).

A number of pharmacological treatments can be used to manage neuropathic pain outside of specialist pain management services. However, there is considerable variation in how treatment is initiated, the dosages used and the order in which drugs are introduced, whether therapeutic doses are achieved and whether there is correct sequencing of therapeutic classes. A further issue is that a number of commonly used treatments are unlicensed for treating neuropathic pain, which may limit their use. These factors may lead to inadequate pain control, with considerable morbidity.

Commonly used pharmacological treatments include antidepressants (tricyclic antidepressants [TCAs], selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs] and serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors [SNRIs]), antiepileptic (anticonvulsant) drugs, topical treatments and opioid analgesics. In addition to their potential benefits, all of these drug classes are associated with various adverse effects.

This short clinical guideline aims to improve the care of adults with neuropathic pain by making evidence-based recommendations on the pharmacological management of neuropathic pain outside of specialist pain management services. A further aim is to ensure that people who require specialist assessment and interventions are referred appropriately and in a timely fashion to a specialist pain management service and/or other condition‑specific services.

Drug recommendations

For all drugs, recommendations are based on evidence of clinical and cost effectiveness and reflect whether their use for the management of neuropathic pain is a good use of NHS resources. This guideline should be used in conjunction with clinical judgement and decision-making appropriate for the individual patient.

The guideline will assume that prescribers will use a drug's summary of product characteristics (SPC) and the British National Formulary (BNF) to inform decisions made with individual patients (this includes obtaining information on special warnings, precautions for use, contraindications and adverse effects of pharmacological treatments).

This guideline recommends some drugs for indications for which they do not have a UK marketing authorisation at the date of publication, if there is good evidence to support that use. The prescriber should follow relevant professional guidance, taking full responsibility for the decision. The patient (or those with authority to give consent on their behalf) should provide informed consent, which should be documented. See the General Medical Council's Good practice in prescribing and managing medicines and devices (2013). Where recommendations have been made for the use of drugs outside their licensed indications (off-label use), these drugs are marked with a footnote in the recommendations.

Healthcare setting for this guideline

The recommendations in this clinical guideline are for the pharmacological management of neuropathic pain in non-specialist settings only. The Guideline Development Group acknowledged that there are other pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments that will be of benefit to people with neuropathic pain, within different care pathways in different settings.

The following definitions apply to this guideline.

Non-specialist settings are primary and secondary care services that do not provide specialist pain services. Non-specialist settings include general practice, general community care and hospital care.

Specialist pain services are those that that provide comprehensive assessment and multi-modal management of all types of pain, including neuropathic pain.

More information

You can also see this guideline in the NICE pathway on neuropathic pain.

To find out what NICE has said on topics related to this guideline, see our web page on neuropathic and persistent pain.

See also the guideline committee's discussion and the evidence reviews (in the full guideline), and information about how the guideline was developed, including details of the committee.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)