For many people, a prescription for gabapentin – widely known as Neurontin – can provide hope for managing the symptoms of a variety of health disorders. However, like many medications, gabapentin has its downsides as well. These can occur in the form of side effects that range from mild discomfort to severe physical effects that can pose a threat to the individual’s long-term health and safety.
When taking gabapentin, it can be important to understand these potential effects and risks and to know what to do – and what not to do – if these effects occur. This beneficial drug can cause future health and mental problems, including addiction, that can make it difficult to live a full and fulfilling life.
Uses of Gabapentin
The National Library of Medicine identifies gabapentin as a drug that has been found to have similar behavior in the body as the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which can block or slow some messages in the brain. Gabapentin does not use the GABA system, but it is named the way it is because it slows brain messages in a similar way. Because of this activity, gabapentin can be used for a variety of health conditions, including:
- Epilepsy or other types of seizures
- Certain types of neuralgia, or nerve pain, such as shingles
- Restless leg syndrome
- Other convulsive conditions
In addition to these approved uses, gabapentin is often used for off-label treatments, such as for anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression-related disorders, as explained by an article from Psycom. It is also more commonly being used to treat other types of pain, including the pain of spinal injury. However, these uses have yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
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Mild Side Effects
Like most medications, people who take gabapentin have reported a variety of side effects from the drug. Most of these are mild and tolerable, or they will go away after the body becomes used to the drug. According to Mayo Clinic, these mild side effects include:
- Clumsiness, unsteadiness, and loss of balance
- Rolling eye movements
- Behavioral issues and aggression
- Aches and pains
Clumsiness and unsteadiness can be more common in elderly adults who may be at risk for serious falls or other injuries. Children are more likely to experience serious mood swings or depression when taking this medication. Taking higher doses of the drug or taking it chronically for a very long time can make side effects more likely and can even lead to some severe side effects.
Severe Side Effects
As is important with any number of serious side effects, WebMD advises that individuals who experience more severe or unexpected side effects should see a doctor. Some of these side effects include, but are not limited to:
- Swelling of hands and feet (peripheral edema)
- Sudden changes in mood, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts
- Memory loss or confusion
- Sores on mouth or skin
- Stomach pain
- Respiratory suppression
- Delays in muscle movement
- Kidney issues, especially in those with pre-existing kidney disease
A rare, serious side effect is an allergic reaction that can be serious or fatal. It is important to watch for any swelling of the mouth, tongue, or throat; severe itching; hives; or other signs of a serious allergic reaction. If they occur, medical attention is imperative to avoid complications.
The Likelihood of Experiencing Side Effects
While specifics on the likelihood of experiencing side effects are not detailed, mild side effects are generally more common than severe ones. Regardless, when serious side effects arise with this medication, it is important to tell a doctor right away, as these side effects may become more serious over time, and they could affect the person’s overall health and cause more severe chronic or acute health risks.
Although it is rare that any individual will experience severe side effects, they may occur at any time.
For example, in the case of some side effects, such as kidney problems, muscle issues, memory loss, or respiratory suppression, continuing to take the medication for the long-term can lead to a variety of physical or mental disorders. Even depression can worsen to the point where the person more seriously considers or attempts suicide. These are only some of the effects that can compromise the individual’s short-term and long-term health, seriously impairing the person’s ability to lead a full life.
Short-Term and Long-Term Physical Efects of Gabapentin
The side effects of gabapentin can lead to potentially severe physical effects in the short-term and long-term. For example, a study from the American Journal of Medicine indicates that people who have pre-existing kidney disease can suffer from gabapentin toxicity, which can lead to poisoning and death. This is because gabapentin is processed through the kidneys, and compromised kidneys can’t eliminate it from the body well enough. Other potential long-term issues include:
- Respiratory failure in the short-term or long-term
- Weakened muscles
- Memory loss
Another potential risk occurs if a person who has been using gabapentin for a long time tries to quit using the drug suddenly. Because the brain may not be able to quickly adjust to a sudden loss of gabapentin in the body, there may be severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures. This can occur even if the person has never had seizures before or is taking the drug to treat a condition other than seizures. To avoid physical injury, the process of stopping gabapentin should be gradual, and it is best managed with the support of a doctor experienced in tapering the medication.
Gabapentin Abuse and Addiction
Gabapentin is a potent psychoactive medication that can create hallucinatory effects or even a euphoric high. As a result, gabapentin is sometimes abused for recreational purposes or to self-treat mental health disorders. A review of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Pharmacology indicates that three reasons people abuse gabapentin include:
- Getting high with gabapentin alone
- Preventing or diminishing symptoms of opiate withdrawal
- Potentiating methadone (making it possible to get high)
These types of abuse can lead to individuals becoming addicted to gabapentin on its own, but it is more likely to be seen in polydrug addiction, with opioids. This can be dangerous, as combining gabapentin with an opioid can increase the risks of both drugs, including the risk that the person will stop breathing, which can lead to death. Because of this, any abuse of gabapentin may be a sign of a deeper drug abuse issue or perhaps even addiction. This condition then requires treatment to avoid health risks or even death.
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Help for Gabapentin Addiction
Gabapentin abuse or addiction can create serious concerns for a person’s short-term and long-term health based on the side effects and potential physical effects described above. Because of this, any abuse of gabapentin is cause for concern and intervention. Treatment centers that provide research-based rehab with professionals experienced in gabapentin abuse – and in its polydrug abuse with opioids – can help individuals who are struggling to stop using gabapentin and learn to manage the situations that make them want to use the drug, gaining control over abuse or addiction. This is achieved through a variety of treatments, including:
Thankfully, many of the side effects and other health conditions caused by gabapentin abuse appear to resolve quickly upon stopping use, including kidney toxicity, memory loss, and respiratory issues. Because of this, stopping gabapentin abuse is a reliable way to return to a healthier outlook for the future.