Fact Checked

What Is Gabapentin?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.2% of the total US population have active epilepsy based on studies from 2015. Statistically speaking, this breaks down to approximately 3.4 million people nationwide who are struggling with epilepsy, affecting around 3 million adults and 470,000 children. Based on the most current estimates, this means about 0.6% of the childhood population ages 0-17 years have active epilepsy; as a ratio, the CDC indicates that’s about 6 out of every 1,000 children who may have this neurological (brain) disorder. Gabapentin is a prescription drug that is used along with other medications in an effort to control and prevent seizures. It may also be prescribed to relieve nerve pain following an episode of shingles, a painful rash that adults may experience as a result of a herpes zoster infection. Gabapentin is also used to treat chronic nerve pain and Restless legs syndrome (RLS) (also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease) in some instances. If your doctor has recommended taking gabapentin for any of the aforementioned conditions (or for another health issue), read on for important information regarding this medication.

What Is Gabapentin?

Classified as an anticonvulsant (chemical class: Gamma Aminobutyric Acid), gabapentin is also called an anti-epileptic drug. The available dosage forms are as follows:

  • Capsule
  • Tablet
  • Solution
  • Suspension

According to Drugs.com, it affects chemicals and nerves in the body that are involved in the cause of seizures and some types of physiological pain.  Furthermore, the site indicates that gabapentin is used in adults to treat nerve (neuropathic) pain, specifically caused by herpes virus or shingles (herpes zoster).

While the generic name for this medication is gabapentin, there are three distinct brand names: Gralise, Horizant, and Neurontin. It should be noted that each brand treats a specific condition and should therefore only be used for that purpose as prescribed by your physician.

  • The Gralise brand of gabapentin is prescribed for neuropathic pain management only; it is not used for epilepsy.
  • The Horizant brand of gabapentin is used to treat Restless legs syndrome (RLS) in addition to treating neuropathic (nerve) pain.
  • The Neurontin brand of gabapentin is used to treat seizures in adults and children who are at least 3 years of age; it is also used to treat neuropathic pain.

Other commonly-used brand names for gabapentin in the U.S. include FusePaq Fanatrex (used to help control partial seizures or convulsions in the treatment of epilepsy) and Gabarone. As mentioned, be sure to check your medicine each time you receive a refill for your pharmacy, and use only the brand and form of gabapentin as prescribed by your physician.

What Is Gabapentin Used For?

As seen on WebMD.com, gabapentin is used to treat a host of conditions, including:

Used in tandem with another medication to treat partial seizures: According to research, studies have shown that when used as an add-on with another seizure medication, many adults had a significant decrease in seizures, and side effects were minimal. In addition, a similar study in children age 3 – 12 years had comparable results. Children with complex partial seizures and secondarily-generalized seizures displayed the greatest rate of improvement.

Neuropathic (nerve) pain: As reported on Cochrane.org, evidence has shown that oral gabapentin at doses of 1200 mg daily or more has a significant effect on pain in some individuals who suffer from moderate/severe neuropathic pain after shingles or as a complication of diabetes.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS): As published on Very Well Health.com, gabapentin (sold under the trade name Horizant or Neurontin) is a commonly-used medication that may help treat the symptoms of RLS. Studies have indicated that individuals who have a history of peripheral neuropathy or chronic pain may benefit from gabapentin therapy. In addition, the drug may also be beneficial in treating RLS in the context of other neurological disorders, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

Postherpetic pain after shingles (herpes zoster infection): As indicated in RxList.com, gabapentin in the form of Neurontin is often used to treat patients who suffer pain from damaged nerves (also known as postherpetic pain) following a bout of shingles, a painful rash that results from a herpes zoster infection in adults.

Acute pain following an operation: Numerous clinical trials have shown that gabapentin is also effective at treating post-operative pain for various types of surgical procedures, including but not limited to hip and knee operations, hysterectomies, and many other different types of operations. In addition, specific studies have shown that preoperative doses of gabapentin may provide a significant reduction in pain after a caesarean section.

Essential tremor: Essential tremor (ET) is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary rhythmic shaking, and is most commonly seen in adults age 40 and older. It can affect almost any part of the body, but the trembling takes place most often in a human’s hands, particularly while a person is trying to accomplish simple tasks, such as tying one’s shoes or drinking from a glass. Although it isn’t typically a dangerous condition, it usually grows progressively worse and can be quite severe in some individuals. In some instances, gabapentin (Neurontin) is used for short-term treatment of essential tremor affecting the hands; in most cases, it is not used with other medications.

Fibromyalgia: There has been some research that indicates gabapentin in the form of Neurontin may help with the treatment of fibromyalgia symptoms. Patients suffering from this condition have reported a decrease in pain and fatigue, as well as an improvement in sleep patterns.

 “Change of life” signs: Menopause – also known as the “change of life” – is a time in a woman’s life when her monthly periods stop. This phase of a woman’s biological cycle marks a significant transition, as it delineates her childbearing and non-childbearing years. Several studies have indicated that the Neurontin brand of gabapentin has been shown to be an effective medication in treating hot flashes in women going through menopause.

Alcoholism: According to studies reported in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), gabapentin significantly improved the rates of abstinence and heavy drinking in alcohol-dependent adults. The drug was also proven effective at reducing alcohol-related insomnia, discomfort and craving in a dose-dependent manner.

How Does Gabapentin Work?

As indicated earlier, gabapentin is an anticonvulsant medication that aids in controlling seizures in people with epilepsy. Some forms of gabapentin can also treat RLS, certain types of nerve pain, and a variety of other health conditions. According to Medical News Today, the drug appears to work by altering electrical activity in the brain and influencing the activity of chemicals called neurotransmitters, which send messages between nerve cells. Brand names for gabapentin include Neurontin, Gralise, and Horizant. The medication is available in capsule, tablet, or liquid form, and must be taken exactly as prescribed by your physician.

What Are The Benefits Of Gabapentin?

On December 30, 1993, gabapentin received final approval by the FDA for marketing in the United States. Although it is only marketed as an anticonvulsant, it has also been prescribed for Restless legs syndrome (RLS), tremors, different chronic pain issues, and a broad range of psychiatric disorders. Some benefits of gabapentin include:

  • Because its manufacturer no longer has patent protection on the drug, there are generic versions of gabapentin available; this makes it more affordable and therefore more accessible to a wider population.
  • Studies have shown that unlike drugs similar to gabapentin on the market, gabapentin has been proven to be effective for individuals who have hard-to-treat depression or other mood disorders.
  • Although gabapentin is traditionally known for treating epilepsy, research has repeatedly shown that it can be an effective form of pain management for various medical conditions and procedures (including pre-and post-operative scenarios).
  • Another benefit of gabapentin is that in most cases, studies have indicated that the drug’s side-effects are relatively low.

What Are The Side-Effects of Gabapentin?

If you or a loved one are prescribed gabapentin, it’s important to be aware that this medication may cause side effects. Be sure to tell your doctor if any of these symptoms are persistent or severe:

  • Anxiety
  • Back/joint pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Heartburn
  • Increased appetite
  • Memory problems
  • Nausea
  • Red, itchy eyes (sometimes with swelling or discharge)
  • Runny nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat, or flu-like symptoms
  • Strange or unusual/intrusive thoughts
  • Swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Uncontrollable shaking of a part of your body (tremors)
  • Unsteadiness
  • Unwanted eye movements
  • Vomiting
  • Weight gain

Some side effects may be serious. If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor immediately:

  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Hoarseness
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Seizures
  • Swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips, or eyes

Gabapentin may also cause other side effects. If you have any unusual problems while taking this medication, call your physician immediately, or in the event of an emergency, go to the ER.

Are There Any Risks Associated With Gabapentin?

Studies have indicated that there is the possibility of some serious long-term effects when taking gabapentin, which may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Blurred vision
  • Temporary amnesia
  • Tremors
  • Weight gain

Furthermore, the following scenarios should also be closely monitored:

Kidney disease and gabapentin: Individuals with a history of kidney disease are susceptible to gabapentin toxicity, since this drug is excreted through the kidneys. Speak with your doctor if you have a history of kidney disease to learn more about your treatment options, including dosage, side-effects and signs to look for in the event of toxicity.  

Children and gabapentin: Children between the ages of 3 and 12 may be subject to mood changes, impaired concentration, hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, and changes in academic performance when taking gabapentin. It is therefore of utmost importance for parents and guardians to closely monitor a child who is prescribed gabapentin and to report any physical/mental changes to the family pediatrician.

Suicidal thoughts/mood disorders and gabapentin: In some instances, gabapentin may increase anxiety or cause depression; it has also been linked to panic attacks and manic episodes in some individuals. In rare cases, intrusive and/or suicidal thoughts have been reported in individuals taking gabapentin. In the event that you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms or changes in mood or behavior, seek help immediately from a physician.

In any case, it’s important to discuss possible risks and side-effects if your healthcare provider prescribes gabapentin to you or a family member. Be sure to let your physician know about any known drug allergies during your consultation, as well as all of the medications (prescription and over-the-counter) and supplements you are currently taking to avoid contraindications. When you or a family member are first taking gabapentin (or any new medication for that matter), be sure to pay close attention to its overall physical and psychological impacts – if you or a loved one are experiencing any negative side-effects and believe it is due to the gabapentin, be sure to reach out to your physician immediately or go to the ER in emergency situations.

Sources Cited:

1)      “Epilepsy Fast Facts.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov), (no publish date), https://www.cdc.gov/epilepsy/about/fast-facts.htm. Accessed May 26, 2020.

2)      “What Conditions does Gabapentin Treat?” WebMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-14208-8217/gabapentin-oral/gabapentin-oral/details/list-conditions. Accessed May 26, 2020.

3)      “Extended Release Gabapentin (Neurontin) for Hot Flashes.” MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health (womensmentalhealth.org), October 21, 2012, https://womensmentalhealth.org/posts/gabapentin-neurontin-hot-flashes/. Accessed May 26, 2020.

4)      “Gabapentin.” Epilepsy Foundation (epilepsy.com), (no publish date), https://www.epilepsy.com/medications/gabapentin. Accessed May 26, 2020.

5)      “Gabapentin and its use in pain management.” West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (wsh.nhs.uk), (no publish date), https://www.wsh.nhs.uk/CMS-Documents/Patient-leaflets/PainService/5312-1Gabapentinanditsuseinpainmanagement.pdf. Accessed May 26, 2020.

 6)      “Gabapentin.” Medline Plus (medlineplus.gov), (no publish date), https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a694007.html#special-dietary. Accessed May 26, 2020.

7)      Durbin, Kaci; MD. “Gabapentin.” Drugs.com, February 3, 2020, https://www.drugs.com/gabapentin.html. Accessed May 26, 2020.