What Is Gabapentin?

Gabapentin, also known by the brand name Neurontin, is an anticonvulsant used for seizure disorders, as well as certain neuropathic pain conditions. It belongs to its own drug class, gabapentinoids. It is most commonly used to treat epilepsy, restless leg syndrome, hot flashes, and neuropathic pain. It is often used as a less addictive alternative to opioids; however, gabapentin addiction and abuse still occur in many patients.

Gabapentin has a similar chemical structure to Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), the brain chemical which affects the body’s nervous system. It can produce feelings of relaxation and calmness, which can help with nerve pain, anxiety, and even poor sleep.

Gabapentin is prescribed to treat nerve pain, alcohol and cocaine withdrawals, restless leg syndrome, diabetic neuropathy, fibromyalgia, and seizures. It works by altering one’s calcium channels to reduce seizures and ease nerve pain. Some brand names of Gabapentin are Neurontin and Gralise. The drug’s known street names are “gabbies” or “johnnies.”

In addition its potentially addictive nature, gabapentin can cause suicidal thoughts, moods swings, and abrupt changes in a user’s behavior. It can also cause elevated blood pressure, fever, sleep problems, appetite changes, and chest pain.

Gabapentin Abuse

Gabapentin abuse tends to occur in people who already have an addiction to opioids or other drugs. The effects of gabapentin intoxication have been described as a sense of calm, euphoria, and a high similar to marijuana.

One study found that of the 503 participants reporting illegal drug use, 15% reported using gabapentin in addition to other drugs to get high in the previous 6 months. Another study, working with a sample of participants meant to represent the national population, found almost a quarter of patients with co-prescriptions of opioids and gabapentin were getting more than three times their prescribed amount to supply their addiction. People using the drug without a prescription is a growing problem in many areas. Due to the drug’s legal status, this is difficult to address from a policing standpoint. States where gabapentin abuse is becoming more common are beginning to classify the drug as a more strictly controlled substance.

Gabapentin’s unique ability to address multiple ailments has made it one of the most popular prescription medications in the US. In November of 2021, GoodRx reported that it was the sixth-most prescribed drug in the nation. Despite its low abuse potential, its ability to be used in conjunction with other drugs causes widespread harm and addiction.

Signs Of A Gabapentin Addiction

Effects of excessive gabapentin use include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Coordination problems
  • Tremors
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts/behaviors
  • Changes in mood
  • Dizziness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty speaking

It is important to try to recognize these symptoms and to be wary of other red flags, such as the presence of an abundance of pill bottles. These effects can be detrimental to one’s health, livelihood, and overall safety.

Many gabapentin users in early recovery abuse gabapentin because, at high doses (800mg or more), they may experience a euphoric-like high that does not show up on drug screens. Gabapentin abusers typically take the drug in addition to opioids to produce their desired high, a dangerous and potentially deadly combination. It is possible to fatally overdose on gabapentin, both on its own or in conjunction with other drugs. However, there is currently no antidote that can be administered to someone in the case of a gabapentin overdose as there is with opioid overdoses. If you find a loved one showing signs of an overdose–drowsiness, muscle weakness, lethargy and drooping eyelids, diarrhea, and sedation—seek medical attention immediately.

Signs Of Gabapentin Addiction

  • Lying about or exaggerating symptoms to doctors
  • Seeking out multiple doctors to get extra doses
  • Switching doctors after the original doctor refuses to continue prescribing the medication
  • Changes in social habits and/or circles
  • Changes in personal hygiene and grooming habits
  • Unease at the thought of the drug being unavailable
  • Refusal to quit despite social, financial, or legal consequences
  • Failed attempts to quit

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Combining Gabapentin With Other Drugs

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), gabapentin use has steadily risen, and prescription rates doubled from 2011 to 2017. Gabapentin dependence and withdrawal are most common among those using at least one other substance. Combining more than one drug at a time is known as polydrug use, and it can intensify or create new highs. For those who use opioids or cocaine, gabapentin is used to amplify the high or to help alleviate cocaine withdrawal symptoms.

In 2019, the FDA called for updated labels for gabapentinoids that include new warnings of potential respiratory depressant effects. Gabapentinoid products include gabapentin, which is marketed as Neurontin and Gralise, and generics like gabapentin enacarbil and pregabalin. This decision came as reports indicated that gabapentinoid abuse alone and with opioids has led to respiratory depression and increased risk of opioid overdose death. As of 2019, the FDA requires drug manufacturers to conduct clinical trials to evaluate the abuse potential of gabapentinoids in combination with opioids.

Treating A Gabapentin Addiction

Frequent and excessive use of gabapentin can lead to a physical and psychological dependence on the drug. This is when someone becomes so accustomed to taking a drug that they need it to feel and function normally. Quitting a drug like gabapentin cold turkey can be dangerous and induce several withdrawal symptoms of varying severity. These include anxiety, insomnia, nausea, pain, and sweating. Quitting also increases one’s likelihood of having a seizure, which can lead to personal injury or the development of medical problems and life-threatening emergencies. Trying to quit should be done at a rehab facility or with the guidance and supervision of a professional during a medical detox.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehabs offer the structured environment and the around-the-clock supervision that is often needed to assist individuals in their recovery. The length of time one stays at an inpatient rehab can range from 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, or even longer, and is contingent on several factors like the severity of the addiction or co-occurring mental conditions. For those experiencing polydrug abuse, choosing an inpatient rehab facility allows an individual to receive treatment for each drug being abused. This targeted approach enables physicians and counselors to have a well-rounded approach when treating addiction’s physical and psychological symptoms. For instance, if one is abusing gabapentin in combination with other substances, like alcohol or cocaine, only treating for gabapentin may result in relapse since the other contributing factors are not being addressed.

Comprehensive inpatient rehabs will combine various methods to address gabapentin abuse, but most will begin with a medically supervised detox. During detox, the dosage of gabapentin is tapered gradually to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms, and medical support and supervision are available around-the-clock. Gabapentin withdrawal usually begins between 12 hours and 7 days after the last dose, and most saw withdrawal symptoms within 24 to 48 hours. While the severity of gabapentin withdrawal symptoms ranges widely, some of the most common symptoms to expect for gabapentin include agitation, confusion, and disorientation. Additional common symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Increased heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms

Beyond medically supervised detox, inpatient rehabs offer many treatment approaches for those experiencing gabapentin use disorder. These approaches can include attending therapy sessions, group meetings, or recreational activities. Such activities provide opportunities for socialization and decompression from the topics covered in treatments. Additional common treatments in inpatient programs include 12-step programs, like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and recreational therapies like art or music therapy.

Get Help Today

If you believe you or a loved one is dealing with a substance use disorder involving gabapentin or other drugs, there is help available. Contact a treatment provider today to discuss treatment options.