Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation of the primary motor cortex in management of chronic neuropathic pain: a systematic review.

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Objectives Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) of the primary motor cortex (M1) with frequencies 5-20 Hz is an expanding non-invasive treatment for chronic neuropathic pain (NP). Outcome data, however, show considerable inhomogeneity with concern to the levels of effect due to the great diversity of treated conditions. The aim of this review was to survey the literature regarding the efficacy and safety of M1 rTMS, and the accuracy to predict a positive response to epidural motor cortex stimulation (MCS) which is supposed to give a more longstanding pain relief. Methods A systematic literature search was conducted up to June 2019 in accordance with the PRISMA guidelines. We used the PICO Model to define two specific clinical questions: (1) Does rTMS of M1 relieve NP better than sham treatment? (2) Can the response to rTMS be used to predict the effect of epidural MCS? After article selection, data extraction, and study quality assessment, the certainty of evidence of treatment effect was defined using the GRADE system. Results Data on 5-20 Hz (high-frequency) rTMS vs. sham was extracted from 24 blinded randomised controlled trials which were of varying quality, investigated highly heterogeneous pain conditions, and used excessively variable stimulation parameters. The difference in pain relief between active and sham stimulation was statistically significant in 9 of 11 studies using single-session rTMS, and in 9 of 13 studies using multiple sessions. Baseline data could be extracted from 6 single and 12 multiple session trials with a weighted mean pain reduction induced by active rTMS, compared to baseline, of -19% for single sessions, -32% for multiple sessions with follow-up <30 days, and -24% for multiple sessions with follow-up ≥30 days after the last stimulation session. For single sessions the weighted mean difference in pain reduction between active rTMS and sham was 15 percentage points, for multiple sessions the difference was 22 percentage points for follow-ups <30 days, and 15 percentage points for follow-ups ≥30 days. Four studies reported data that could be used to evaluate the accuracy of rTMS to predict response to MCS, showing a specificity of 60-100%, and a positive predictive value of 75-100%. No serious adverse events were reported. Conclusions rTMS targeting M1 can result in significant reduction of chronic NP which, however, is transient and shows a great heterogeneity between studies; very low certainty of evidence for single sessions and low for multiple sessions. Multiple sessions of rTMS can maintain a more longstanding effect. rTMS seems to be a fairly good predictor of a positive response to epidural MCS and may be used to select patients for implantation of permanent epidural electrodes. More studies are needed to manifest the use of rTMS for this purpose. Pain relief outcomes in a longer perspective, and outcome variables other than pain reduction need to be addressed more consistently in future studies to consolidate the applicability of rTMS in routine clinical practice.

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