Gabapentin is a drug that is used to treat epilepsy, diabetes, and nerve pain, which can result from conditions like shingles, for example.
Like every drug, Gabapentin has considerable benefits, but it can also produce side effects, which can vary from person to person, as everyone’s body chemistry is different.
Let’s look at what the drug is used for, its benefits, and its side effects.
Diabetes is one of the conditions that Gabapentin is prescribed to treat. Diabetes is a condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high.
There are 2 main types of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes, where the immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin, which is essential for controlling blood sugar.
Type 2 diabetes, where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin in the way that they should.
Type 2 diabetes is a lot more common than type 1. Type 1 tends to develop in childhood, whereas type 2 diabetes is strongly related to lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or obese.
Diabetes can also develop during pregnancy, because some women have such high levels of blood glucose that their body is unable to produce enough insulin to deal with it. This is known as gestational diabetes.
It is possible to be pre-diabetic, which means that your blood sugars are high, but not high enough to be classed as diabetic. This does increase the risk of becoming diabetic if nothing is done about it.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, as it may mean that you have diabetes:
feeling extremely thirsty
urinating more frequently than usual
feeling very tired
itching around the penis or vagina, or episodes of thrush
cuts or wounds that heal slowly
Type 1 diabetes develops quickly over weeks or even days, whereas many people with type 2 diabetes can have it for years without knowing because the symptoms can be so general.
Causes of diabetes
The amount of sugar in the blood is controlled by a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. When food is digested and enters the bloodstream, insulin pulls glucose out of the blood and into cells, where it’s broken down to produce energy and meet the body’s needs. If you have diabetes, your body can’t break down glucose into energy. This is because there’s either not enough insulin to act on the glucose, or the insulin produced doesn’t work as it should.
Lifestyle changes won’t lower your risk of type 1 diabetes, but they can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes or even reverse the condition completely.
If you have diabetes
If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and carrying out regular blood tests will help keep a check on your blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes requires that you administer insulin injections regularly. In the case of type 2 diabetes, medication may be needed to manage the condition if lifestyle changes alone don’t work.
Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain and causes seizures. Almost 1 in every 100 people suffers from the condition.
The neurons in the brain, conduct electrical signals and communicate with each other in the brain using chemical messengers. During a seizure, abnormal electrical impulses occur which causes seizures.
Some people don’t experience seizures as we know them. Sometimes they just feel odd, or may appear like they are in a trance briefly. But others lose consciousness and have convulsions.
Some people might only have an isolated seizure at some point during their life.
What causes epilepsy?
Epilepsy can start at any age, but it most often begins during childhood.
It’s sometimes not possible to know why the condition develops, but epilepsy in adults can often occur as a result of damage the brain. Epilepsy can be caused by strokes, brain tumours and severe head injuries. Sometimes epilepsy can result from changes in the brain that occur as a result of the genes you inherit from your parents.
How epilepsy is diagnosed
Epilepsy is often diagnosed after you have had more than one seizure. Having an isolated seizure would not be considered as epilepsy. It is possible to conduct tests of the brain to diagnose the condition.
How epilepsy is treated
For most people with epilepsy, treatment with medications called anti-epileptic drugs is necessary. These medications won’t cure epilepsy, but they are very effective in controlling seizures. In some cases, surgery can remove a specific area of the brain that is affected, or it can install an electrical device that can help control seizures.
If you have epilepsy
It’s important to stay healthy through regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding excessive drinking. You might have to consider how your epilepsy might affect your driving, or pregnancy.
Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin surrounding it. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. Around 1 in 4 people will get shingles at one point in their life.
Symptoms of shingles
The main symptom of shingles is pain, accompanied by a rash that usually develops into itchy blisters. It looks similar to chicken pox. Blisters are present for around 1 week, then they flatten and dry out. Scabs form which can leave scarring and loss of skin pigment.
The pain might constant, dull, or burning, and it can be mild or severe. You can experience sharp stabbing pains, and the affected area of skin will usually feel tender.
Before shingles develops, you may get some early symptoms. These can include:
Burning, tingling, numbness, or itchiness of the skin in the affected area
A feeling of being generally unwell
A bout of shingles typically lasts for around 2-4 weeks. It usually affects a specific area on just one side of the body. Any part of body can be affected, including the face and eyes, but the chest and abdomen are the most common areas where the rash develops.
Causes of shingles
Most people have chickenpox when they are a child, but the virus can lie dormant in the body. The virus can be reactivated later in life and it causes shingles. You can get shingles more than once, but it’s rare to get it more than twice. Shingles can recur if:
You get older, because your immunity can decrease
You have a bout of physical or emotional stress. The chemicals released by your body when you’re stressed can prevent your immune system from working properly
If you have HIV or AIDS, because the disease weakens the immune system.
If you have recently had a bone marrow or organ transplant.
If you are getting treated for cancer.
You can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox before, but this is rare.
The blisters contain live virus. If a person who has never had chickenpox comes into contact with an open blister, they can contract the virus and develop chickenpox.
Preventing the spread of the virus
If you have shingles, you’re contagious until the last blister has dried and scabbed over.
To prevent the virus spreading, don’t share towels or flannels, and avoid swimming or playing contact sports. You should also avoid work or school if your rash is weeping fluid.
Exposure to the virus can be particularly dangerous for some people. If you have shingles, avoid:
Pregnant women, especially if they have never had chicken pox.
People who have a weak immune system, such as someone with HIV or AIDS, or receiving cancer treatment.
Young babies, under 1 month old. Their immune systems won’t be strong enough to fight off a virus.
There’s no cure for shingles, but there are treatments that can relieve the symptoms. Treatment for shingles can include:
Covering the rash with a dressing to prevent the spread of infection.
Painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine
Antiviral medication to inhibit the virus, but not everyone will need this.
Sometimes, even after the illness has gone, you can experience nerve pain for weeks, or even months.
Gabapentin is used to treat epilepsy, and it is also taken for nerve pain, which might be caused by diabetes, shingles, or an injury.
In epilepsy, it’s believed that gabapentin stops seizures by reducing the incidence of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
In the case of nerve pain, the drug is thought to inhibit pain messages travelling from the brain and down the spine to block pain.
Who can take gabapentin?
Gabapentin can be taken by adults and children aged 6 and over.
Gabapentin isn’t suitable for some people:
Gabapentin capsules contain gelatin so they may not be suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Some brands of Gabapentin capsules contain lactose, so they may be unsuitable for people who are lactose intolerant.
Gabapentin liquid contains sodium and potassium. If you are on a controlled diet, or your kidneys don’t work well, talk to your doctor about whether the drug is suitable for you.
You may not be able to take Gabapentin if:
You have ever had an allergic reaction to gabapentin or another medicine
You have kidney problems
You have ever misused or been addicted to a medicine
You are trying to get pregnant, or you are already pregnant or breastfeeding
How and when to take it
Swallow gabapentin capsules and tablets whole with a drink of water or juice. Do not chew them.
You can take gabapentin with or without food, but it’s best to take the dose at the same each day.
Space the doses evenly throughout the day.
You will usually start on a lower dose to prevent side effects, then your doctor will increase the dose over a few days.
How long will I take it for?
If you have epilepsy, even when your illness is under control you will probably still need to take Gabapentin for many years.
If you have nerve pain, you will normally need to take it for a few months to prevent the pain from returning.
Side effects of Gabapentin
Most people who take gabapentin don’t have too many side effects, but as with any medication, they can occur.
Common side effects include:
tiredness or feeling sleepy
dizziness or loss of coordination
feeling sick or vomiting
getting more infections than usual
swollen arms and legs
Serious side effects
Very few people taking Gabapentin experience serious side effects, but tell your doctor immediately if you have:
Thoughts of harming or killing yourself, which has been found to occur in a small number of people.
Yellowing of your skin or whites of your eyes – these may be warning signs of liver damage.
Unusual bruises or bleeding, which may be a sign of a developing blood disorder.
long-lasting stomach pain, feeling sick or vomiting, which can be a sign of pancreatic inflammation.
Serious allergic reaction can occur, look for these warning signs:
an itchy red rash
tightness in the chest or throat
swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat
A serious allergic reaction is a medical emergency, so seek medical help immediately.
How to cope with side effects
If you feel sleepy, tired, or dizzy
You may need to speak to your doctor about reducing the dose of your medication or reducing the dose more slowly. If this doesn’t work, you may need to try a different medicine.
If you feel sick
Take Gabapentin with or after a meal or snack. It may also help if you don’t eat rich or spicy food while you are taking the medication, which can unsettle the stomach.
If you experience diarrhoea and vomiting
Keep hydrated with small but frequent sips of water. It may also help to take oral rehydration sachets which you can buy from a pharmacy or supermarket to prevent dehydration. Don’t take any medicines to treat diarrhoea or vomiting without talking to your doctor first.
If you have constipation
Eat more high-fibre foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables and cereals, and try to drink several glasses of water or other fluid each day. It may also help to exercise regularly to stimulate the normal action of the bowel.
If you gain weight
Gabapentin can make you hungrier so it can cause you to gain weight. Try to follow a healthy balanced diet without eating more. Don’t snack on calorific foods such as crisps, cakes, biscuits, and sweets. If you feel hungry between meals, snack on fruit and vegetables. Regular exercise will help you to offset any weight gain too.
If you get a dry mouth
Chew sugar-free gum or suck sugar-free sweets to stimulate saliva production.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Gabapentin is not generally recommended in pregnancy. There’s no definitive evidence that it’s harmful to an unborn baby but for safety reasons, it is usually recommended that the drug is only taken in cases where the benefits of taking the drug outweigh the harm.
If you are taking Gabapentin for epilepsy and you become pregnant, don’t stop taking it before you speak to your doctor. Seizures can harm an unborn baby.
If you take gabapentin during pregnancy, your baby may require extra monitoring for a few days after the birth because they can experience Gabapentin withdrawal symptoms.
Tiny amounts of Gabapentin can get into breast milk but generally, you can breastfeed as normal while taking it.
Interactions with other medicines
There aren’t usually any problems mixing gabapentin with other medicines.
Some indigestion remedies, called antacids, reduce the amount of Gabapentin that the body can absorb so it may be less effective. Do not take an antacid within 2 hours of taking the dose of Gabapentin.
You can drink alcohol with Gabapentin. However, it may make you feel sleepy or tired. During the first few days of taking Gabapentin, avoid alcohol to make sure the medicine does not make you feel excessively tired or dizzy.
Speak to your doctor if you are taking any of these medications, which might change the way that Gabapentin works:
Strong painkillers like morphine can increase the tiredness and dizziness you might feel when you start Gabapentin.
Antidepressants such as amitriptyline or fluoxetine can also have this effect.
Antipsychotic medicines for mental health problems like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder
A weight loss medicine called Orlistat might render Gabapentin less effective.
Herbal remedies and other supplements
There are no known problems with taking herbal remedies and supplements with Gabapentin. But for safety reasons, speak to a pharmacist if you take any herbal remedies.
Some people have become addicted to Gabapentin after taking it for a long time. If this happens, you can experience withdrawal symptoms after you stop taking the medicine.
Do not stop taking gabapentin suddenly, even if you feel better. Stopping gabapentin suddenly can cause problems. If you have epilepsy, stopping gabapentin suddenly can cause seizures that may not stop.
Gabapentin can build up in the body so if you are taking it and stop suddenly, you may have severe withdrawals. Symptoms include:
It’s possible to prevent withdrawal symptoms by gradually reducing the dose of gabapentin before you stop taking it completely.