Rampant abuse of 'cure all' prescription gabapentin

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - If you aren't on this medication, chances are you know someone who is.

It's used to treat everything from pain to mood disorders and can be just what the doctor ordered for many.

But now, there is mounting research uncovering misuse of (and even a black market for) this popular prescription.

We're talking about gabapentin. It's approved for some types of seizures and nerve pain. Doctors also use it off-label to treat everything from insomnia to migraines to anxiety.

Records show that 64 million prescriptions of gabapentin were sold in the U.S. in 2016, up more than 60 percent from four years earlier.

The thing is, experts say there is growing evidence it's being abused, too.

It's even being sold on the streets under the name "Johnnys."  Addiction psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Insler said he's seeing it all too often.

"Sometimes, I've even experienced patients ask me for their Johnnys, and then they'll, maybe, catch themselves and say, 'No, no, no. I mean gabapentin.'"

Why is this prescription being misused?

"I think that some individuals may say that they use it to get high, and others may say they use it and get a drowsy effect. So, we're talking about the euphoria versus sedation," Dr. Rachel Vickers Smith said.

Vickers Smith wrote her dissertation on gabapentin abuse when studying drug abusers in Appalachia.

"We found a nearly 3,000 percent increase from 2008 to about 2014 in individuals reporting gabapentin abuse for the purposes of getting high," Vickers Smith said.

We wanted to see for ourselves, so we searched online. We easily found people talking about taking Johnnys or gabapentin, to get high. There were also threads of people trying to spread awareness about the abuse.

Experts said gabapentin is typically misused by substance abusers who mix it with other drugs. Dr. Insler said it's also possible for people with legitimate prescriptions to misuse, too.

"If somebody is taking excessively high doses or needing early refills" or if their mood changes, family members or clinicians should see these signs as red flags.

A growing body of research shows the problem of abuse, especially among substance abusers is clear.  But some experts also worry about the number of prescriptions being handed out.

A recent New England Journal of Medicine letter warned that "clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids" are "increasingly prescribing gabapentin" and that "evidence suggests that some patients misuse, abuse, or divert gabapentin."

"I think that's why it's really important to get out the message," Vickers Smith said.

Gabapentin is not a controlled substance or scheduled drug on the federal level.

We reached out to several government agencies. There was little information on potential abuse, although the National Institute on Drug Abuse pointed us to existing research and the DEA said it is beginning to receive calls.

"I don't think that gabapentin abuse is on the CDC, DEA's, NIDA's radar, in part because we had this opioid epidemic," Vickers Smith said.

All experts we talked to stress that this is not the next opioid epidemic, but they believe gabapentin abuse is something to watch closely and believe more research is needed.

We contacted two of the manufacturers of gabapentin, including Pfizer, who told us, "Gabapentin is an important treatment option for their approved indications."

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