According to statistics cited by Reuters Health, prescriptions for nerve-related pain medications, including Neurontin, have gone up more than three times in recent years. Neurontin is the brand-name for gabapentin, an anticonvulsant approved primarily for the treatment of nerve pain caused by the herpes virus or shingles. Gabapentin is also a treatment for seizures in adults and children.

While treating nerve pain is the primary use for this drug, there is data indicating gabapentin is emerging as an increasingly prevalent option for treating other conditions. For example, it is increasingly being prescribed as a remedy for chronic pain. But does it work or is it causing more harm than good?

Gabapentin is prescribed off-label for everything from hot flashes to chronic and acute pain. Prescribing something “off-label” means that a health care provider can legally prescribe a drug for a purpose not officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This leaves the decision-making entirely up to the health care provider, with little in the way of formal guidelines.

Researchers Dr. Christopher W. Goodman and Allan S. Brett of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine recently found that gabapentin isn’t necessarily effective for the conditions it’s being prescribed to treat. In one interview, Dr. Goodman said there’s no data to support that gabapentin and similar drugs should be among the most prescribed in the country. He went on to point out the potential for serious side effects.

In well-controlled studies, Drs. Goodman and Brett reported there was less than one point in difference on a 10-point pain scale between people using taking the drug compared to a placebo. Despite the minimal pain-relieving effects of gabapentin and a similar drug, Lyrica, doctors still tend to prescribe them often for everything from foot pain to migraines.

Potentially Dangerous Side Effects of Gabapentin

Not only does gabapentin appear to be fairly ineffective at treating most pain-related conditions, but it can also come with a set of dangerous side effects. These effects have become more apparent as gabapentin prescriptions have increased. Some of the effects associated with a therapeutic dose of gabapentin include:

  • Hostility
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Problems speaking
  • Jerky movements
  • Changes in mood or anxiety
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Panic attacks
  • Sedation
  • Dizziness
  • Problems thinking

Beyond these, there’s also the possibility that more people may become addicted to gabapentin. Gabapentin isn’t a controlled substance federally, but many states are taking action to make it a controlled substance in their jurisdictions because of the potential for abuse and addiction.

Gabapentin is actually easier to obtain than opioids in many states, and can lead to similar effects, including a feeling of immense relaxation. However, the effects are less pronounced than opioids, which may actually be riskier as people may be inclined to take higher doses to get high, ultimately leading to an overdose.

While gabapentin may have some of the same risks as opioids, it’s something doctors often turn to treat pain because they’re heavily restricted in how they prescribe opioids and they’re desperate for alternatives.

The Warner-Lambert company, which previously produced Neurontin, faced controversy in 2004 when the government decided the drug manufacturer was engaged in an illegal marketing campaign. The campaign generated additional awareness for the drug, which potentially played a key role in increased prescription rates for gabapentin. 

When the Risks Outweigh the Benefits

It seems that for many of the conditions it’s being used to treat, the risks associated with gabapentin use far outweigh the possible benefits. When combined with opioids or benzodiazepines, the risks of taking gabapentin are even more significant.

Researchers warn that we’re just starting to see the possible harm of gabapentin and its long-term effects. More evidence may come to light about its risks over the coming years.

If you are prescribed a medication you have the right to ask questions about the risks. Your doctor should explain the side effects, and if you feel you don’t get a thorough explanation, pharmacists are good resources as well. As a patient, consider whether you need the medicine and how much in your life specifically taking that drug could affect you. 

Also, keep in mind there is almost always multiple types of medicines that can be used to treat a particular medical condition. Be direct, and ask your doctor why they selected gabapentin, or a specific medicine for you. It maybe something your doctor is familiar with, but in other cases this might not be the case. A doctor may try to prescribe a drug that’s fairly new or new to them, and if this is the case, they may have no personal knowledge of how it works or the possible side effects in real patients. 

If you experience any side effects while taking any prescription medicine, keep a log of what they are, so that you can speak to your doctor about those side effects.

If you’re struggling with pain medicine abuse or any substance-related issue, contact The Recovery Village. We can help you explore treatment plans and programs.

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