What you need to know about gabapentin
Gabapentin is among the 10 most prescribed medications in the U.S. But there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it. That’s because it’s typically used to treat some fairly specific conditions. Those include seizures in people who have epilepsy, nerve damage following shingles and restless legs syndrome.
Below, find out how it works in your body and what the possible side effects are.
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How does gabapentin work?
Gabapentin reduces the excitability of certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Those nerve cells play a role in seizures and the transmission of pain signals, says Po-Chang Hsu, MD. Dr. Hsu is a medical consultant in Boston.
By decreasing the activity of these nerve cells, gabapentin can weaken seizures or stop them altogether.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder. You feel an irresistible urge to move your legs in order to feel comfortable. Scientists aren’t exactly sure how gabapentin works to relieve RLS discomfort. But it’s thought to affect the nerve cells, like with seizures.
For nerve pain, gabapentin works a bit differently. There are neurons in the brain known as GABAergic neurons, which produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). They act as a barrier to pain impulses. “When GABA neurons die or don’t work, the whole pain system in the body can get out of control,” says Dr. Hsu.
Gabapentin increases GABA concentration in the brain. And it mimics the action of GABA. So more GABA neurons means a stronger barrier to pain, Dr. Hsu adds.
Who shouldn’t take gabapentin?
Gabapentin isn’t for everybody. Some individuals should either not take it or be careful about using it, Dr. Hsu says. They include:
- Pregnant women or those who are trying to get pregnant
- People who have chronic kidney disease
- People dealing with depression or experiencing suicidal thoughts
- Those who have a history of medicine abuse or addiction
- Patients who have impaired lung function
- People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Before you start taking gabapentin, make sure you let your doctor know what medications you’re on. There are a number of medicines that negatively interact with gabapentin.
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What are the possible side effects of gabapentin?
As with any medication, gabapentin has possible side effects. The most common ones include:
- Mood changes
- Feeling tired
- Dry mouth
- Blurry vision
But there are also some serious side effects you need to watch closely. They include:
- Suicidal thoughts
- High fevers
- Serious stomach pain
- Serious allergic reactions, such as rashes on the skin and difficulty breathing
If you experience any of these side effects, stop taking gabapentin and seek medical attention immediately.
In most cases, you should not take gabapentin for longer than 5 months. But if it’s helping and hasn’t caused any significant side effects, your doctor may instruct you to take it for longer than that, Dr. Hsu says.
How to use gabapentin safely
The Mayo Clinic recommends following these guidelines when taking gabapentin:
1. Read the dosing directions carefully. Gabapentin comes in tablets, oral solutions, capsules and extended-release capsules. Each form has different instructions. Follow the dosing instructions from your doctor exactly as they’re printed.
2. Depending on which form you take, you might be asked to take it with — or without — food. If you accidentally miss a dose, take it as soon as you remember. But if it’s getting close to the time of your next dose, skip the missed dose.
3. Communicate with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about any other medications or supplements you’re taking. If you’re taking certain antacids, for instance, you’ll need to wait at least 2 hours before taking gabapentin.
4. Stick to the plan. Do not change your dose, stop taking gabapentin or even switch the form of gabapentin you’re taking without consulting your doctor. And as with any medication, if you have any side effects, call your doctor right away, Dr. Hsu says.
Gabapentin is a very effective drug for several conditions. Talk to your doctor about whether it’s right for you.
And be sure to download our free mobile app to find the best price on your medications at a pharmacy near you.