By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Since it was first approved as an anti-seizure medication in the 1990’s, gabapentin (Neurontin) has become one of the most widely studied and prescribed drugs in world. Although gabapentin is only approved by the FDA for epilepsy and postherpetic neuralgia (shingles), it is widely prescribed off-label for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and many other types of pain.
Hundreds of clinical trials have been conducted to find new uses for gabapentin — for everything from asthma and obesity to alcoholism and improving your sex life. Gabapentin has been pitched for so many different conditions that a drug company executive infamously called it “snake oil.”
Now gabapentin is being touted as a “promising alternative” to opioids for dental pain. In a new study at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health (EIOH), researchers found that gabapentin, when combined with ibuprofen or acetaminophen, was more effective than opioids in relieving pain after tooth extractions.
“We hypothesized that using a combination of the non-opioid pain medications and adding gabapentin to the mix for pain would be an effective strategy to minimize or eliminate opioids for dental pain,” said Yanfang Ren, DDS, a dentistry professor at EIOH.
Ren and his colleagues treated over 7,000 patients at an urgent dental care clinic with different combinations of opioids, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and gabapentin after tooth extractions. The “failure rates” of the medications were determined by how often patients returned to the clinic for additional pain relief.
The study findings, published in JAMA Network Open, found that non-opioid medications, including those with gabapentin, had failure rates significantly lower than opioids.
Dental Pain Failure Rates
31.3% Other opioid combinations
Providers at the dental clinic have already put their findings into practice by sharply reducing the use of opioids. Prior to that, about 1,800 patients at the clinic were treated each year with opioids. Researchers estimate the reduced opioid prescribing may have prevented 105 of those patients from developing a problem with “persistent opioid use.”
“This study represents continued efforts by our team and other dentists to minimize the use of opioids for dental pain,” said Eli Eliav, DMD, the director of EIOH. “Additional studies, preferably randomized controlled clinical trials, are needed to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this approach. It is our duty to continuously seek safe and effective treatment for our patients in pain.”
Gabapentin has issues of its own. Patients prescribed gabapentin often complain of mood swings, depression, dizziness, fatigue and drowsiness, and a 2019 review found little evidence gabapentin should be used off-label to treat pain. There are also many reports that gabapentin is being abused and sold on the streets because it can heighten the effects of other drugs.