As doctors began shying away from prescribing opioid painkillers due to their potential for addiction and abuse, other drugs began filling that void.
Gabapentin, a non-opioid painkiller often sold under the brand Neurontin, was one of them.
But increases in gabapentin prescriptions came along with some unintended consequences — more cases of the drug being misused, causing poisonings and being used in suicide attempts, according to a new study by University of Pittsburgh researchers.
“These are safer than opioids, but these medications still carry some risks,” said Kimberly Reynolds, the study’s lead author.
The scientists analyzed calls to poison control centers nationwide between 2013 and 2017 relating to gabapentin and baclofen, another drug used for treating pain.
Nationwide, suspected suicide attempts involving gabapentin increased by 80.5 percent over that time period.
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Gabapentin exposures reported to Minnesota poison control centers increased by 197 percent between 2013 and 2017, while baclofen exposures decreased by 35 percent. Exposures of gabapentin and at least one other substance increased by 55 percent during that time period.
In Minnesota, gabapentin is not a scheduled controlled substance, but doctors are required to report prescriptions to a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Baclofen is not a scheduled controlled substance in the U.S.
Poison control centers in the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin all saw increases in calls related to gabapentin over the five-year timespan.
Reynolds said she doesn’t want to discourage people from using non-opioid painkillers like gabapentin and baclofen, but that patients and doctors should be aware of side effects.
She said patients who are prescribed these drugs should be screened for substance use disorders and suicidal ideation.
“I just want to point out that there may be some risks that are kind of unintended from these medications that people aren’t aware of,” she said.