Tricyclic Antidepressants: Types, Examples & Side Effects

Instructor: Patrice Oliver

Patrice has taught multiple subjects including Health & Science & has a Master's degree in Education.

Do you know someone diagnosed with depression? Have you ever experienced a tension headache? What about pain caused by nerve damage from diabetes or shingles? If so, you will probably want to know more about tricyclic antidepressants. Continue reading to discover more about these drugs.

What Are Tricyclic Antidepressants?

A man was helping his family move to their new home. After hours of hard labor and lifting multiple pieces of heavy furniture, he began to experience intense lower back pain. He experienced lower back pain previously but decided to go to the doctor for this episode because it was so severe. The doctor prescribed desipramine (Norpramin) tablets, which is a tricyclic antidepressant, to relieve the pain and warned him of potential side effects. After two weeks of taking the medication, he experienced weight gain, constipation, and a slight increase in blood pressure. However, his lower back pain was reduced tremendously.

Tricyclic antidepressants are drugs commonly prescribed to treat symptoms of depression, but can also be used to relieve pain. They were first introduced in the 1950s and are called 'tricylic' because their chemical structure contains three rings.

How Do They Work?

These drugs are believed to change the chemicals in the brain that can cause symptoms of depression and chronic pain. Specifically, tricyclic antidepressants work to reduce symptoms of depression by blocking the reabsorption of two brain chemicals related to mood, norepinephrine and serotonin. This increases the levels of these chemicals in the brain, which helps to elevate mood. Although how tricyclic antidepressants work to reduce chronic pain isn't completely understood, it is thought that they reduce pain by blocking pain signals sent to the spinal cord.

Tricyclic antidepressants do not provide immediate relief, and it may take weeks before the pain is reduced or the symptoms of depression are diminished. Besides treating depression, tricyclic antidepressants can also be prescribed for treating the chronic pain associated with nerve damage from diabetes or shingles, migraines, tension headaches, lower back pain, and fibromyalgia. Some of the common types of tricyclic antidepressants include:

  • Amitriptyline
  • Imipramine
  • Clomipramine
  • Nortriptyline
  • Desipramine
  • Doxepin

Tricyclic Antidepressants: Examples & Primary Uses

There are several types of tricyclic antidepressants. The following lists the generic names (brand names in parentheses) of tricyclic antidepressants and their primary uses:

  • Amitriptyline (Vanatrip, Elavil, & Endep) - Mainly used to treat symptoms of depression
  • Imipramine (Tofranil &Tofranil-PM) - Primarily used to treat symptoms of depression and is often used to treat bed-wetting in children
  • Clomipramine (Anafranil) - Helpful in treating symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Nortriptyline (Pamelor, Aventyl HCl) - Used to treat depression
  • Desipramine (Norpramin) - Used to treat the symptoms of depression
  • Doxepin (Sinequan) - Used to treat symptoms of anxiety and/or depression

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