NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A generic drug normally used to treat nerve pain and seizures is now being used by drug abusers as an alternative to opioids.
With opioid addiction on the rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends gabapentin as the first treatment for pain.
"Gabapentin's a anti-seizure medicine that also has use for neuropathic pain. It is seen as a safer alternative to giving opioids when a person has pain issues," said LSU Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Ross Deleonardo.
Based on CDC guidelines and the battle against the opioid crisis, the New England Journal of Medicine says the medication is now being prescribed excessively.
"It's a very highly prescribed medication, that's for sure, and part of that is people think it's completely safe. But if you take enough of any medicine, it's going to be dangerous and you can be poisoned," Deleonardo said.
The Journal of Medicine says in 2016, gabapentin was the 10th most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. It also says patients can experience withdrawal when high doses are stopped abruptly.
"Sometimes they're using it to enhance the opioid response, and sometimes they're using it in place," said Cabell-Huntington Health Dept. Director Michael Kilkenny.
"The problem is, I guess just like any other medicine for pain, it does have an abuse potential because it can be a little bit sedating and give a little bit of an effect," Deleonardo said.
That effect is a rush of euphoria, or "high" when using the drug.
"The thing with gabapentin is people who are overdosing on it are just taking very large quantities, but there's a lot available because there's a lot being prescribed all the time," Deleonardo said.
According to the American Addiction Centers, 1.1 percent of the population and 22 percent in drug abuse treatment centers misuse gabapentin.
Physicians say it's too early to tell how widespread abuse is.
"I think it's definitely something that's new that's starting. Word kind of gets out on the street that here's a drug that will make you feel relaxed or sedated and there's plenty of it around, so I think people are just starting to be experimenting with large doses," Deleonardo said.
"This is a part of an evolving epidemic. This has been around but patterns of drug use shift during the epidemic," Kilkenny said.