At the time of this writing, gabapentin (Neurontin) is not considered to be a controlled substance on the federal level. However, some states, such as Michigan, and other municipalities, have scheduled it as a class 5 drug, meaning it is believed to have a relatively low potential for abuse. It is commonly prescribed to treat neuropathic pain, epilepsy, and restless leg syndrome.
Gabapentin is a fairly new medication that was first introduced in 1993. As such, its use, mechanism of action, and adverse effects are still being researched. However, gabapentin appears to have an effect on the GABA neurotransmitter but does not seem to manipulate receptors related to other common drugs of abuse, such as opioids.
For this reason, it’s not commonly thought of as a drug of abuse, and yet, it still has depressant properties that are similar to many other abused intoxicant substances. Also, it has been known to induce withdrawal symptoms in those who become dependent.
This medication can function as a tranquilizer and produce feelings of well-being that, although mild, are similar to the high produced by marijuana. It can also produce feelings of calm and increased sociability. It is recreationally used by polydrug users who combine it with other substances to amplify the effects of both the gabapentin or the other substance. It may also be misused by those seeking to relieve some symptoms of withdrawal from other drugs or alcohol.
The likelihood of gabapentin abuse occurring is considered low due to its relatively low potential for addiction. It does, however, induce withdrawal symptoms, which is a tell-tale sign of physical dependence. Effects induced by the drug could also promote psychological dependence. Treatment for gabapentin addiction may be more complex than other addictions because the individual will likely be dependent on other substances concurrently.
Gabapentin Use and Abuse
Prescription drug abuse is characterized by any use above and beyond that which is prescribed by a doctor. This includes using the medication without a prescription or making up symptoms to obtain a prescription. Taking a higher dose or more frequently than instructed is also considered abuse, and this is likely to result in withdrawal symptoms when use is discontinued.
Commonly, people enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs report abusing gabapentin without a prescription. One study revealed that 22% of surveyed patients used this medication for intoxicating purposes, especially for enhancing the effects of methadone.
Gabapentin is also increasingly being used as an adulterant in heroin. The fact that this medication is uncontrolled means that it’s not difficult to obtain legal prescriptions, which can then be sold on the black market. If gabapentin follows the trend of many other psychoactive prescription drugs, recreational use will likely increase until the DEA and other government agencies recognize the danger and begin putting restrictions in place.
Signs of Gabapentin Addiction
Although the potential for dependence on gabapentin is low, it can still occur, and such an addiction can be a serious issue due to the possibility of overdose and death. If you suspect that someone you know is using gabapentin without a prescription, other drugs, or alcohol, you can watch for the following symptoms of abuse:
- Impaired memory
- Impaired motor skills
- Jerky movements
- Erratic eye movements
- Double vision
- Difficulty speaking
If a person is taking gabapentin as directed with a prescription, these side effects are not necessarily an indication of abuse or addiction, although side effects tend to be more intense relative to how much a person uses. A number of symptoms characterize addiction, and a few are specific to prescription drugs. Common signs of prescription drug addiction include the following:
- Making up or exaggerating symptoms to physicians
- Doctor-shopping (visiting multiple doctors to get extra doses)
- Switching doctors after a physician has refused to continue prescribing the drug
- Changes in social habits and friends
- Adverse changes in personal hygiene and grooming
- Constant obsession with obtaining and using the drug
- Feeling nervous about not being able to obtain the drug
- Refusal or inability to quit using despite social, financial, or legal problems
Dependence and Withdrawal
Lastly, the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms after stopping the use of a drug is a hallmark indication of dependence and likely full-blown addiction. These occur because the body has adapted to the drug’s presence and has become unable to function without it. In addition to dependence, tolerance also usually develops, which is characterized by the need to use an increasing amount of the drug to achieve the same effect.
In general, the higher the dose a person’s system adjusts to, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms will be. Common gabapentin withdrawal symptoms include the following:
- Changes in appetite
- Muscle pain or spasms
- Stomach pain
- Suicidal thoughts
While most of these symptoms are not outright dangerous, seizures can cause harm or even death, and suicidal ideations are always cause for alarm. For these reasons, it is recommended that a person who is thinking about going off gabapentin consult a doctor or addiction specialist. This should be done regardless of whether or not they are using it with a legitimate prescription. It may also be necessary for the individual to undergo a medical detox during the initial days of the withdrawal period.
Prescription drug overdose fatalities have been steadily increasing for many years. Gabapentin overdose is similar to that of some opioids, such as heroin or Vicodin. However, unlike with opioids, there is no antidote to gabapentin overdose that can instantly reverse symptoms and prevent the substance from further affecting the brain and body. As such, irreversible damage is possible, even if a medical intervention is performed early.
Overdose is most likely to occur when combining gabapentin with other drugs or alcohol. For this reason, the fact that gabapentin is frequently being added to heroin by drug dealers is especially alarming. Moreover, heroin users often have no way of knowing what is in the drug they purchase on the black market, which is one of the reasons why opioid overdose deaths are so common.
Common signs of gabapentin overdose include the following:
- Slurred speech
- Double vision
- Accelerated heartbeat
- High or low blood pressure
- Slowed heart rate and respiration
- Central nervous system depression
The biggest threat to a gabapentin overdose victim is a lack of oxygen to the brain—especially when it is consumed alongside other CNS depressants. Depression of the CNS results in slowed breathing, and it can even cause breathing to stop altogether. An overdose on any CNS depressant is considered an extreme medical emergency, and 911 should be called immediately.
Getting Treatment for Addiction
Recovery By The Sea offers comprehensive, individualized programs designed to treat all aspects of drug abuse and addiction, as well as co-occurring mental health conditions. Our programs feature therapies and services clinically-proven to be vital for the process of recovery, including behavioral therapy, individual and group counseling, group support, aftercare planning, and much, much more.
If you or someone you love is battling a dependence on gabapentin or other substances, contact us today! Discover how we can help you break free from the grip of addiction once and for all and foster the happy, healthy life you deserve!