ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News is investigating an increase in overdoses involving a drug commonly prescribed for nerve pain and epilepsy.
It's a new red flag in the ongoing opioid crisis.
When used properly, gabapentin can be an effective treatment for seizures and nerve pain.
But doctors and emergency responders are tracking a disturbing trend involving opioid addicts abusing gabapentin to enhance their highs.
"A lot of people have access to this drug and therefore are abusing and sometimes overdosing on it," said Georgia Poison Center Director Dr. Gaylord Lopez.
Gabapentin is not classified as a narcotic so it's not regulated and some people are self-dosing.
That can have dangerous, even deadly consequences, especially when mixed with opioids.
"You're talking about your heart stopping and you stop breathing, these are very dangerous symptoms," Lopez said.
Georgia's Poison Center has tracked 2,400 gabapentin overdoses in the last five years.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation cites an increase in deaths with the drug as a contributing factor.
There were 35 deaths in 2014, 100 in 2017 and 32 deaths so far this year.
"When we look at our call data over the last five years, it's ballooned almost 50 percent since 2013," Lopez said.
One possible reason for the increase in gabapentin incidents is doctors trying to combat the opioid crisis are prescribing it as a non-narcotic pain relief alternative.
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"Over the years, a couple, just a very few patients where I know they are at the upper limit of what they should be taking a day. I think they're pushing the limit and in some cases, I will talk with them and say, 'Have you spoken to your doctor to try to back down a little bit?'" said longtime Atlanta pharmacist Ira Katz.
Katz told Channel 2 Action News gabapentin is one of the top-five most prescribed medications.
He explained the side effects for some people who stop taking it.
"If you stop it cold turkey, there can be some potential withdrawal symptoms: agitation, trembling, there can be some adverse effects, of course," Katz said.
Gabapentin currently is not a federally controlled substance.
Five-states, but not Georgia, require it to be reported to their prescription monitoring databases.
Gabapentin is sold under the brand name Neurontin and is also available in generic form.
A spokesperson for Pfizer, the maker of Neurontin, sent a statement to Channel 2 Action News:
"Gabapentin is an important treatment option for its approved indications. Pfizer recognizes the importance of preventing the misuse and abuse of our medicines and will continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to monitor the safety of these medicines."
Cox Media Group