Chronic pain relief: Why Gabapentin may not be a 'safe' alternative to opioids

Chronic pain relief: Why Gabapentin may not be a 'safe' alternative to opioids
Image: Healthline

Gabapentin was supposed to be the answer. Chronic pain afflicts about a fifth of American adults, and for years, doctors thought it could be treated with prescription painkillers like Oxycontin. But as the drugs began killing the equivalent of three planeloads of Americans every week, opioid prescriptions fell off precipitously. Many doctors embraced gabapentin, an anticonvulsant drug traditionally used to prevent seizures, as a way to treat neuropathic pain while avoiding triggering life-threatening addiction.

But now their own pitfalls are becoming clear. Though gabapentin and baclofen are much safer alternatives to opioids, recent research suggests that they’re not as safe as some doctors might have hoped.

By examining the National Poison Data System, which collects reports of poisonings around the United States, Kimberly Reynolds, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, and her co-authors recently found that people are increasingly using both gabapentin and baclofen to either get high or attempt suicide.

Reynolds and others say patients who are prescribed drugs like gabapentin and baclofen should be screened for substance-abuse disorders, mood disorders, and suicidal ideation. And patients who are taking gabapentin should avoid mixing it with other drugs, especially depressants such as alcohol and opioids.