Gabapentin is not a controlled substance. However, it is still abused and can cause overdose when mixed with addictive drugs such as opioids.

Gabapentin is a prescription drug that was originally FDA-approved to treat seizures and some types of nerve pain. It can also be prescribed off-label to treat other conditions. Although gabapentin is generally considered a low-risk medication and is not a federally controlled substance, it is still possible to abuse the drug. This can be especially risky if you take other medications, including opioids.

If you or someone you love is struggling with gabapentin abuse, it’s important to learn about the drug, its risks and where to turn for help.

What Is Gabapentin? 

Gabapentin is a non-opioid medication that is often prescribed for nerve pain. It is chemically related to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA works in the brain as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it slows down the function of other brain cells. Similar to GABA, gabapentin also slows down brain activity.

Is Gabapentin an Opioid?

Gabapentin is not an opioid. The drug is classified as an anticonvulsant and is chemically unrelated to opioids.

How Does Gabapentin Work?

Experts are not sure how gabapentin works as an analgesic to prevent nerve pain. They are also unsure of how it works to prevent seizures.

Is Gabapentin Considered a Painkiller?

Gabapentin is not a painkiller in the traditional sense, but it can be prescribed for certain types of pain. This includes nerve pain — especially diabetic nerve pain and nerve pain that occurs after a shingles infection.

What Is Gabapentin Used For? 

Originally, gabapentin was FDA-approved to treat seizures and post-shingles nerve pain. Since that time, it has fallen out of favor as a seizure drug and is instead used to treat a variety of other conditions. People sometimes take gabapentin in an attempt to treat anxiety, pain, sleep, nerve pain, substance withdrawal or depression. 

Gabapentin for Anxiety

Gabapentin is not a recommended treatment for anxiety. Instead, antidepressants and therapy are first-line treatments for anxiety disorders. 

Gabapentin for Pain

Experts recommend gabapentin for nerve pain, or neuropathy. Although it can be prescribed for other types of chronic pain, such as back pain, there is no evidence that it helps in pain unrelated to nerves.

Gabapentin for Sleep

Gabapentin can be sedating for some people, and one study found that it improved sleep quality. However, experts believe there is not enough evidence to recommend gabapentin as a treatment for insomnia.

That said, people with nerve pain may have trouble sleeping due to the pain. In this instance, gabapentin may be helpful for sleep not only because of its sedating qualities, but also because it can improve pain that may be causing insomnia.

Gabapentin for Neuropathy

Gabapentin is widely accepted as a first-line treatment for nerve pain, especially post-shingles nerve pain and diabetic nerve pain. Its usefulness in other types of nerve pain is unclear, as there have not been enough studies conducted to draw a conclusion.

Gabapentin for Alcohol Withdrawal

Gabapentin can be prescribed for alcohol withdrawal, and experts recommend it as an option for those with mild or moderate symptoms and those who cannot take benzodiazepines. Gabapentin can also be an option for those with a history of substance abuse, as the drug is not a controlled substance and carries less risk of addiction compared to benzodiazepines.

Gabapentin for Depression

Experts do not recommend gabapentin for the treatment of depression. In fact, depression can be a side effect of some anticonvulsants, and it may be severe enough to cause suicidal thoughts in some cases. For this reason, people on gabapentin should be closely monitored for mood changes, especially if they have a history of depression.

Gabapentin for Opiate Withdrawal

Experts do not recommend gabapentin for opioid withdrawal symptoms. Instead, first-line agents like methadone or buprenorphine are preferred, as these can help ease opioid withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse and overdose. Gabapentin can do neither, so it is not recommended.

Side Effects of Gabapentin 

Gabapentin has a number of possible side effects, including:

  • Sedation
  • Dizziness
  • Movement problems
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Swelling
  • Headaches

Long-Term Side Effects of Gabapentin 

Little data exists about the long-term side effects of gabapentin and whether they differ from the short-term side effects of the drug. More studies will need to be conducted to see if gabapentin has any long-term side effects.

Is Gabapentin Addictive? 

Experts are still debating whether gabapentin is an addictive drug, as about 1% of the population abuses gabapentin. Up to 22% of people who abuse opioids report also abusing gabapentin to enhance their high from opioids.

Gabapentin is not a scheduled drug at the federal level. However, seven states have classified it as a Schedule V substance on their own due to a possible link to addiction. These states are:

  • Alabama
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan 
  • North Dakota
  • Tennessee 
  • Virginia 
  • West Virginia

While other states haven’t gone as far as making it a controlled substance, some have passed laws that require doctors to report gabapentin prescriptions into drug monitoring databases. These states include:

  • Connecticut
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Indiana 
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota 
  • Nebraska 
  • New Jersey 
  • Ohio 
  • Oregon 
  • Utah 
  • Wyoming

How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted to Gabapentin? 

Experts aren’t sure how long it takes to get addicted to gabapentin because it is unclear whether the drug is addictive or not. The Drug Enforcement Administration does not consider gabapentin to have an addictive potential, and it is not a controlled substance at the federal level. That said, addiction is complex, and showing signs or symptoms of addiction to any substance is a red flag.

Signs and Symptoms of Gabapentin Addiction

Although experts are conflicted about whether gabapentin may be addictive, there are some general signs and symptoms of substance addiction you should be aware of. If you or someone you love has these symptoms in regard to their gabapentin use, they may be struggling with the drug:

  • Taking more gabapentin than prescribed
  • Taking gabapentin more often than prescribed
  • Using gabapentin that has not been prescribed to them
  • Going to different doctors or pharmacies to try to get gabapentin
  • Exaggerating symptoms to try to get a gabapentin prescription
  • Mixing gabapentin with other substances, such as opioids, to try to enhance a high

Gabapentin Withdrawal Symptoms

Although gabapentin withdrawal symptoms are rare, they can occur if a person frequently takes high doses of short-acting gabapentin and suddenly quits the drug cold turkey. It is unclear if long-acting gabapentin can cause withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of withdrawal from short-acting gabapentin include:

  • Agitation
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion

Can You Overdose on Gabapentin? 

You can overdose on gabapentin, especially if you combine gabapentin with opioids or other substances. Gabapentin was involved in around 9.7% of overdose deaths between 2019 and 2020, and it was believed to be a factor in more than half of those deaths. A gabapentin overdose can be dangerous and can cause symptoms such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Movement problems
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure

If you think someone has taken too much gabapentin — alone or in combination with other substances — you should call 911.

Gabapentin Detox Center in South Jersey 

If you or a loved one struggles with gabapentin abuse or is mixing it with other substances, help is available. Our medical detox program at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help wean you off gabapentin, while our rehab programs can teach you the skills needed to stay off gabapentin for good. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your situation.

Jonathan-Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Jessica-Pyhtila
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.