Prescribed for epilepsy and nerve damage, is touted by federal health officials as an alternative to opioids for patients. But some are now abusing the drug.
Last December, Ohio’s Board of Pharmacy began reporting sales of gabapentin prescriptions in its regular monitoring of controlled substances. The drug, which is not an opioid nor designated a controlled substance by federal authorities, is used to treat nerve pain. But the board found that it was the most prescribed medication on its list that month, surpassing oxycodone by more than 9 million doses. In February, the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network issued an alert regarding increasing misuse across the state.
And it’s not just in Ohio. Gabapentin’s ability to tackle multiple ailments has helped make it one of the most popular medications in the U.S. In May, it was the fifth-most prescribed pain drug in the nation, according to GoodRx.
Gabapentin is approved by the Food Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and pain related to nerve damage, called neuropathy. Also known by its brand-name Neurontin, the drug acts as a sedative. It is widely considered non-addictive and touted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an alternative intervention to opiates for chronic pain. Generally, doctors prescribe no more than 1,800 to 2,400 milligrams of gabapentin per day, according to information on the Mayo Clinic’s website.
As providers dole out the drug in mass quantities for conditions such as restless legs syndrome and alcoholism, it is being subverted to a drug of abuse. Gabapentin can enhance the euphoria caused by an opioid and stave off drug withdrawals. In addition, it can bypass the blocking effects of medications used for addiction treatment, enabling patients to get high while in recovery.
Athens, home to Ohio University, lies in the southeastern corner of the state, which has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Despite experience in combating illicit drug use, law enforcement officials and drug counselors say the addition of gabapentin adds a new obstacle.
The new problem is expected to cause increased death and addiction rates as addicts look for new ways to get higher.