Regular readers know I’m very skeptical about the claims of new drugs, especially those advertised on TV with a voice at the end of the commercial reading the side effects at the speed of a tobacco auctioneer (I always listen carefully for “death,” that ultimate side effect).
You’ll see no commercials for either Savella or Xyrem on TV, the first because its manufacturer, Forest Laboratories, doesn’t believe in direct-to-consumer ads. The FDA hasn’t yet approved Xyrem for fibromyalgia, though it will likely get an FDA blessing by year’s end. However, many fibromyalgia physicians are prescribing Xyrem off-label, informing their patients about the pending FDA status. The Xyrem story is especially interesting, I think, but let’s take a look at both drugs.
Used In Europe for Five Years
Savella (milnacipran) has been used in Europe for fibromyalgia for about five years with excellent results. Though they’re largely unaware of it, Europeans are guinea pigs for the American pharmaceutical industry, trying drugs before they’re approved here. Savella acts by raising brain levels of stress-buffering serotonin and a second neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, which is involved in focus and energy. Although milnacipran is a unique molecule, the effect is theoretically similar to combining an SSRI antidepressant (like Lexapro) with a psychostimulant (like the attention-deficit disorder med Adderall).
US Clinical Trial Results
The clinical results in US studies, which had to be completed before FDA approval, have been impressive. Researchers tracked about 2000 fibro patients, 95% female, after three and six months of taking Savella. They asked about improvement in pain, improvement in overall perception of “positive change,” and improvement of physical function. In all categories, Savella scored significantly greater than a placebo (dummy pill).
Researchers knew what the main side effect would be before anyone swallowed the first pill. When you do anything to raise norepinephrine, you feel nauseated, and nausea did turn out to be the number-one side effect. To avoid this, patients start at a dose one-tenth of the maintenance dose and gradually increase it. Headache and constipation also occur, but less often. Anticipating your next question, no weight gain occurs with Savella.
If you start Savella, any drugs you’re taking that raise serotonin need to be tapered down (not necessarily discontinued, but lowered). Otherwise, Savella can be used with most other medications.
Xyrem was almost 20 years ago when I first learned from a massage therapist that the chemical that would ultimately be released as Xyrem could help fibromyalgia patients. “It’s pretty hard to find these days,” she said. “You know, it’s got a terrible reputation.”
“Terrible reputation” was an understatement. Gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, was available over-the-counter, but was rapidly being withdrawn by the FDA because of its high abuse potential. If you’re thinking, “I’ve heard of GHB…” you’re right, it’s the date-rape drug, a Mickey Finn of a sleep med that’s easily mixed with an innocuous drink for nefarious reasons.
How could GHB be helpful in fibro?
Researchers discovered what fibro patients already knew. On those rare nights where they slept deeply and well, people with fibro had less pain and more energy the next day. With GHB, you undeniably sleep deeply, and back when it was widely available fibro patients who tried it were telling their massage therapists (but not their physicians!) how this drug was helping them.
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