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4 essential questions about taking gabapentin for pain

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When it comes to nerve pain, over-the-counter pain relievers just can’t cut it. Learn about this proven way to find relief.
Written by Rosemary Black
Updated on June 29, 2022

If you have nerve pain, you probably already discovered that over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen simply aren’t up to the job. So how do you find relief from the burning, tingling or sharp pains that can affect your everyday life?

Your doctor might recommend that you try gabapentin. (You might also see it called by its brand names: Neurontin®, Horizant® and Gralise®.) Gabapentin is widely used and can be very effective, says Rohan Arora, MD. He’s an assistant professor of neurology at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York and director of the Stroke Program at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills hospital.

Wondering what to expect if you’ve been given a gabapentin prescription? Here’s what you need to know. (And don’t forget to bring this free prescription discount card with you to the pharmacy. It could save you up to 80% on your medications.)

How does gabapentin work?

Gabapentin belongs to a class of medications called anticonvulsants, so it’s frequently prescribed to help control certain types of seizures in people with epilepsy. What does that have to do with pain? The medication works by reducing the sensitivity of certain nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells play a role in seizures as well as in transmitting pain signals.

Imagine the nerve cell is a thin wire, Dr. Arora says. “Since you can’t physically cut the nerve cell to give the patient relief from pain, you ‘cut’ the nerve cell chemically by giving gabapentin,” Dr. Arora explains.

What else is gabapentin prescribed for?

In addition to helping people who have seizures, gabapentin is frequently prescribed to relieve nerve pain in adults after they have shingles. The virus that causes you to get chickenpox as a kid stays dormant in a part of a spinal nerve root. In some people, the dormant virus may get reactivated many years later and cause a shingles rash (doctors aren’t quite sure why).

That’s bad enough, but some people continue to have pain for months or even years after the rash goes away.

The medication can also work for people with diabetes who’ve developed pain, numbness or tingling due to nerve damage (known as diabetic neuropathy). And it’s been shown to be helpful in treating restless legs syndrome, a condition that causes a strong desire to move the legs.

What gabapentin isn’t used for: everyday pain associated with, say, a sprained ankle or arthritis.

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How do I take it?

Gabapentin comes as a capsule, tablet or liquid. You may start on a dose as small as 100 milligrams 3 times a day, Dr. Arora says. (A high dose would be considered 1,000 mg 3 times a day. Luckily, “some people get relief from pain at a much lower dose than this,” Dr. Arora says.)

Gabapentin reaches its peak concentration in your body about 8 hours after you take it, Dr. Arora says. “But the action may start even within 2 hours after you take it.”

It can take about 2 weeks for the full effects of gabapentin to kick in. “You have to let it build up, and you need to be patient. The key is to keep taking it,” Dr. Arora says.

Be sure that you keep to a consistent schedule — your doctor will tell you how many times a day you need to take a dose. “For consistent pain relief, you need to take the medication every 8 or 12 hours,” Dr. Arora says. Many people stay on gabapentin long term and take it every day. (Use these tips to never miss a dose.)

Does it have side effects?

Gabapentin works for most people with minimal side effects, according to Dr. Arora. Plus, the side effects tend to wear off as your body gets used to it.

Side effects can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness or unsteadiness
  • Blurry vision
  • Constipation
  • Increased appetite

Keep an eye out for symptoms that are medical emergencies. You should call your doctor immediately if you develop any of these symptoms:

  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips or eyes

If you stop taking gabapentin suddenly, you could have withdrawal symptoms. These may include anxiety, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, nausea, sweating and pain. So even if you have side effects and want to go off this medication, don’t stop taking it without discussing it with your doctor. They may decrease your dose gradually over the course of at least a week.

Don’t let nerve pain keep you from living a full and happy life. Talk with your doctor about your treatment options. And if your care plan includes medication, be sure to download the Optum Perks prescription discount app. Use it to find, save and share coupons to cash in at the pharmacy.