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What exactly does gabapentin do?

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What does it do?How it makes you feelHow fast does it work?Who shouldn‘t take itWhere to get gabapentinSummary
Doctors commonly prescribe gabapentin to help manage pain from nerve damage, seizures, and restless legs. Here’s how it works and some side effects you might experience when taking it.
Medically reviewed by Alisha D. Sellers, BS Pharmacy, PharmD
Written by Lily Frew
Updated on

Gabapentin is a medication that doctors prescribe commonly in the United States. But you may not have heard of it because it’s typically used to treat specific conditions. These include seizures in people who have epilepsy, nerve damage following shingles, and restless legs syndrome (RLS).

Gabapentin, a generic medication, is an anticonvulsive medication. Doctors use it to relax muscles and prevent spasms. It has other benefits, such as reducing pain.

What does gabapentin do?

A healthcare professional showing a bottle of gabapentin to a patient and explaining what it does exactly.
Photography by SeventyFour/Getty Images

Gabapentin (Neurontin) 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, a medical consultant in Boston.

By lowering the activity of these nerve cells, gabapentin can weaken seizures or stop them altogether.

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.

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How does it make you feel?

In addition to its effect on various conditions, gabapentin can affect how you feel. First and foremost, it should help lower your symptoms.

So, if you experience seizures, gabapentin should lead to a reduction in number or severity. It should also reduce nerve pain if you experience this.

Living with nerve pain can be stressful, so taking gabapentin can provide relief. You might feel a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Does gabapentin make you tired?

Gabapentin can make you feel sleepy. Fatigue and daytime sleepiness are listed as some of its common side effects. This is likely due to its effect on the excitability of the nerve cells in your brain. When the activity in your brain is reduced, you’re likely to feel more drowsy.

Other side effects

As with any medication, gabapentin has possible side effects. The most common ones include:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • mood changes
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • 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 skin rashes and difficulty breathing

If you experience any of these side effects, stop taking gabapentin and seek medical attention immediately.

In most cases, doctors will only prescribe gabapentin for short-term treatment. But if it’s helping and hasn’t caused any significant side effects, your doctor may instruct you to take it long term, Dr. Hsu says.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

While you wait for help to arrive, stay with someone and remove any weapons or substances that can cause harm. You are not alone.

Does gabapentin work right away for nerve pain?

For example, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), older research has found that gabapentin starts working in around 2 weeks for nerve pain.

Gabapentin shouldn’t be used for instant relief from nerve pain because it usually takes some time to have an effect. But it does get to work relatively quickly.

If you’re looking for quick relief from nerve pain, you may want to try over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). A doctor might also prescribe opioids like morphine (Duramorph) or tramadol (Ultram).

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 people who:

Where to get gabapentin

Gabapentin is not available OTC. If you think this drug may be right for you, consult a doctor so they can evaluate your condition and decide whether to prescribe it.

If you’re concerned about the cost of gabapentin, Optum Perks has a free discount card that you can use in pharmacies, or you can search on the Optum Perks site for a coupon that you can use to lower the cost.


Gabapentin is a prescription medication commonly used to treat nerve pain, seizures, and RLS. It works in your brain to calm your neurons, but research is ongoing into how exactly it works for these conditions.

Like any medication, it can have side effects, such as making you feel tired. If you experience serious side effects like an allergic reaction, you should seek help from a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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