This commonly prescribed medication is contributing to the opioid epidemic
It’s not an opioid but this pain medication has recently been linked with a significant percentage of drug-related deaths in Louisville, Kentucky. The Courier Journal reported that in 2016, gabapentin, also known as Neurontin, Gralise or Horizant, was present in nearly one-fourth of fatal overdoses within the commonwealth’s largest city.
As the opioid epidemic has grown and efforts to curb the number of opioids being prescribed have been on the rise, doctors have increasingly shown interest in opioid-free alternatives, such as gabapentin. Originally approved by the FDA to prevent seizures and address shingles-related nerve pain, doctors are now prescribing this medication to patients with various types of chronic pain. Since 2012, the number of gabapentin prescriptions dispensed has increased by 64 percent, making it the 10th most commonly prescribed medication in the nation.
Unfortunately, just because gabapentin isn’t an opioid, doesn’t mean it is completely harmless. Research shows that it is likely to be misused by people with a history of opioid misuse or opioid addiction and heroin users have described it as “easy to obtain.” Furthermore, when used in combination with heroin, gabapentin may be especially deadly by increasing the user’s risk of experiencing an overdose.
Still, as Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy told NBC News, “I don’t want to declare war on gabapentin.” When used appropriately, under medical supervision, gabapentin may be an effective tool for people managing their pain or other health issues. However, just like any prescription medication with the potential for misuse, gabapentin must be stored and disposed of correctly. This is especially true for households with teens. The medicine cabinet in their own homes, or in the homes of friends and family, are often the first places they will go to look for drugs.
Although opioids like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin may be the first to come to mind when talking about prescription medication addiction, it’s important to be aware of the potential for harm any prescription medication may possess. Gabapentin has the potential to be an asset in ending the opioid epidemic as an opioid-free pain medication, but it can also be lethal to those with opioid addiction.
If you become aware of a friend or family member who is using or in possession of gabapentin but doesn’t have a prescription, consider reaching out to a doctor or other healthcare professional for help.
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Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at Center on Addiction