Drug Maker Payments May Influence Gabapentinoid Prescribing

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There is growing attention being paid to doctors who accept money from pharmaceutical companies. A recent study, for example, found that doctors who receive direct payments from opioid manufacturers tend to prescribe more opioid medication than doctors who receive no such payments.

But another new study shows the same is true for doctors who prescribe an expensive class of non-opioid drugs that are widely used “off label” to treat chronic pain.

Researchers at Yale University and the University of Connecticut looked at Medicare Part D prescribing data for gabapentinoids from 2014 to 2016, comparing it with payments made to doctors from gabapentin manufacturers. Over the study period, about 51,000 physicians received $11.5 million from the drug makers, mostly for meals, beverages and gifts.

The researchers found that doctors who received the payments were more likely to prescribe a brand name gabapentinoid such as Lyrica (Pfizer), Gralise (Assertio) or Horizant (Arbor). These brand name drugs cost several hundred dollars for a one-month supply, compared to less than $20 for a one-month supply of a generic version. 

“Among physicians who prescribed gabapentinoids, receipt of payments from industry was associated with a higher likelihood of prescribing brand-name products than generic gabapentin,” researchers reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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“Our findings raise concerns about the reasons some physicians prescribe brand-name gabapentinoids and not less-expensive generic alternatives.”

Generic drugs are generally just as effective as brand name drugs, but the differences in cost can be significant. For a Medicare beneficiary in 2016, about $2,500 a year was spent on a brand name gabapentin vs. just $89 for a generic version of the same drug.

“All of these studies have essentially the same finding -- that marketing to physicians is associated with increased sales of a company’s product and increased Medicare expenditures,” Robert Steinbrook, MD, UC San Francisco School of Medicine, wrote in a JAMA editorial.

“Association studies do not establish cause and effect, they do not account for other influences on prescribing, such as direct-to-consumer advertising, and they do not assess the appropriateness of prescriptions for individual patients. Nonetheless, the pattern is indisputable.”

Does your doctor accept industry payments? You can see for yourself on Medicare’s Open Payments database.

In addition to the costs involved, there is growing awareness that gabapentinoids are over-prescribed and not as effective for some chronic pain conditions.

The drugs were originally developed to prevent epileptic seizures, but their use has tripled over the past 15 years as more doctors prescribed them off label for a wide variety of pain conditions.

Our findings raise concerns about the reasons some physicians prescribe brand-name gabapentinoids and not less-expensive generic alternatives.
— JAMA Internal Medicine study

“Gabapentinoids have become frequent first-line alternatives in patients with chronic pain from whom opioids are being withheld or withdrawn, as well as in patients with acute pain who traditionally received short courses of low-dose opioid,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, in a recent clinical review in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“The evidence to support off-label gabapentinoid use for most painful clinical conditions is limited. For some conditions, no well-performed controlled trials exist.”

Goodman and Brett said the 2016 CDC opioid guideline reinforces “an inflated view of gabapentinoid effectiveness” by asserting they are “first-line drugs” for neuropathic pain. Many patients who take gabapetinoids have side-effects such as dizziness or drowsiness, and there are increasing reports that the drugs are being abused and sold on the street.   

Gabapentinoids Raise Risk of Suicide and Overdose in Younger People

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Gabapentinoids – a class of nerve medication widely prescribed to treat chronic pain – increase the risk of suicide, overdose, traffic accidents and head or body injuries in younger people, according to a large new study published in The British Medical Journal.

Sales of the two main gabapentinoids, pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin), have tripled in recent years in the United States, where they are often promoted in prescribing guidelines as safer alternatives to opioids.

A team of researchers followed nearly 192,000 people enrolled in the Swedish Prescribed Drug Register who filled prescriptions for gabapentinoids on at least two consecutive occasions from 2006 to 2013. That information was compared to data in the Swedish Patient Register, which collects information on hospital admissions and outpatient care, as well as the Swedish Cause of Death Register.

Over the study period, researchers found that patients taking gabapentinoids had higher rates of suicide or suicidal behavior (5.2%), unintentional overdose (8.9%), traffic accidents (6.3%) and head or body injuries (36.7%) than the general population.

The risks were strongest for people who were prescribed pregabalin and were most pronounced among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24.  Patients aged 55 and older taking gabapentinoids were not at greater risk.

Researchers believe the drugs may have more impact on younger people because they have faster metabolisms, which could lead to withdrawal problems that affect their impulsivity and emotions.

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“Overall, gabapentinoids seem to be safe for a range of outcomes in older people. However, the increased risks found in adolescents and young adults prescribed gabapentinoids, particularly for suicidal behaviour and unintentional overdoses, warrant further research,” said lead author Seena Fazel, MD, of the University of Oxford in England.

“If our findings are triangulated with other forms of evidence, clinical guidelines may need review regarding prescriptions for young people, and those with substance use disorders. Further restrictions for off-label prescription may need consideration.”

Pregabalin is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles and spinal cord injuries; while gabapentin is approved for epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia. Both drugs are also widely prescribed off-label to treat back pain, depression, migraine and other chronic conditions.

Gabapentinoids are increasingly being used recreationally by addicts who have found the medications enhance the effects of heroin and other opioids. The drugs were recently classified as controlled substances in the UK.

Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while Lyrica is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has low potential for addiction and abuse.  

A recent clinical review found little evidence the drugs should be used off-label to treat pain and that prescribing guidelines often exaggerate their effectiveness. The CDC’s controversial opioid guideline, for example, calls gabapentin and pregabalin “first-line drugs” for neuropathic pain.

“Despite documentation that these drugs were promoted improperly for off-label treatment of pain, the recent rapid increase in prescribing of gabapentinoids suggests a persisting sense among clinicians that gabapentinoids are highly effective pain medications,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

“Guidelines and review articles have contributed to this perception by often uncritical extrapolation from FDA-approved indications to off-label use.”

Doctors Say Guidelines Exaggerate Effectiveness of Lyrica and Neurontin

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There is little evidence that gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) should be used off-label to treat pain and prescribing guidelines often exaggerate their effectiveness, according to a new clinical review in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Gabapentin and pregabalin belong to a class of nerve medication known as gabapentinoids. The drugs were originally developed to prevent seizures, but their use has tripled over the past 15 years as more doctors prescribed them for a variety of chronic pain conditions. It is a common practice for doctors to prescribe drugs “off label” for treatments that are not FDA-approved.

“Gabapentinoids have become frequent first-line alternatives in patients with chronic pain from whom opioids are being withheld or withdrawn, as well as in patients with acute pain who traditionally received short courses of low-dose opioid,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD, of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

“The evidence to support off-label gabapentinoid use for most painful clinical conditions is limited. For some conditions, no well-performed controlled trials exist.”

Gabapentin is only approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy and neuropathic pain caused by shingles, but it is prescribed off label to treat depression, ADHD, migraine, fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder.  Pregabalin is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles and spinal cord injuries, but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat other types of pain.

The drugs are sold by Pfizer under the brand names Lyrica and Neurontin. The company has paid nearly $1 billion in fines for misleading and improper marketing of the drugs for off-label use.

“Despite documentation that these drugs were promoted improperly for off-label treatment of pain, the recent rapid increase in prescribing of gabapentinoids suggests a persisting sense among clinicians that gabapentinoids are highly effective pain medications,” the doctors wrote.

“Guidelines and review articles have contributed to this perception by often uncritical extrapolation from FDA-approved indications to off-label use.”

Goodman and Brett say the wording in many medical guidelines “reinforces an inflated view of gabapentinoid effectiveness” by falsely claiming the drugs should be used to treat all types of nerve pain.

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“Another example is the 2016 guideline on opioid prescribing from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states broadly that gabapentin and pregabalin are first-line drugs for neuropathic pain, without further detail or specification,” they wrote. “Even for treatment of diabetic neuropathy (for which pregabalin is FDA approved and gabapentin is off-label), guideline conclusions tend to exaggerate effectiveness.”

Many patients who take gabapetinoids have side-effects such as dizziness or drowsiness, and there are an increasing number of reports that the drugs are being abused and sold on the street.   

Goodman and Brett have sounded the alarm before about the drugs, warning in a 2017 commentary in the The New England Journal of Medicine that “gabapentinoids are being prescribed excessively.”

They say doctors should do a better job warning patients about the side effects of gabapentinoids and the drugs should be stopped if a patient reports little or no benefit.  They also think medical guidelines should be revised to stop the promotion of gabapentinoids for any pain labeled as neuropathic.

Risky Combination: Opioids and Gabapentin

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Opioid medication significantly reduces low back pain, but opioids should not be used in combination with gabapentin (Neurontin) because of their limited effectiveness and potential for abuse, according to the authors of a small new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

"In these days, when we are focusing on reduction of opioids due to opioid crisis in the U.S., gabapentin could be an important part of multimodal non-opioid pain management," N. Nick Knezevic, MD, of the University of Illinois in Chicago told MedPage Today. "However, it should not be given to all patients since the effectiveness in chronic pain patients, particularly in those with low back pain, is limited."

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In a retrospective study, Knezevic and his colleagues looked at 156 patients with low back pain; half of whom were treated with opioids alone and the other half with a combination of opioids and gabapentin.

“According to our study, the combination of gabapentin with opioids was not statistically superior in providing pain relief, in contrast to opioids alone, in patients with chronic pain. Our results are in line with recent guidelines for low back pain treatment that reflect the need to assess the recommendation of gabapentinoids for chronic pain in patients already taking opiods to mitigate risk factors of abuse and overdose,” researchers found.

Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant that was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy, but is now widely prescribed for a variety of chronic pain conditions. Its use in primary care as a treatment for chronic back and neck pain has risen by 535% in the last decade, despite little evidence of its effectiveness.

"The fact that anticonvulsants are often advertised to be effective for 'nerve pain' may mislead the prescriber to assume efficacy for low back pain or sciatica," Oliver Enke, MD, of the University of Sydney, told MedPage.

A 2018 study by Australian researchers found that gabapentinoids did not reduce back pain or disability and often had side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness and nausea. Another recent study found that combining gabapentin with opioid medication significantly raises the risk of dying from an overdose than opioid use alone.

There have been increasing reports of gabapentin being abused by drug addicts, who have learned they can use the medications to heighten the high from heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

The CDC’s opioid prescribing guideline recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids, without saying a word about its potential for abuse or side effects.

A 2017 commentary in the The New England Journal of Medicine warned that gabapentinoids -- a class of nerve medication that includes both gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica) -- are being overprescribed.

"We believe… that gabapentinoids are being prescribed excessively — partly in response to the opioid epidemic,” wrote Christopher Goodman, MD, and Allan Brett, MD. “We suspect that clinicians who are desperate for alternatives to opioids have lowered their threshold for prescribing gabapentinoids to patients with various types of acute, subacute, and chronic noncancer pain."

Lyrica Not Effective for Treating Traumatic Nerve Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Pregabalin is not effective in relieving chronic pain caused by traumatic nerve injury, but it may be useful as an analgesic in treating pain after surgery, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurology.

The placebo-controlled study followed 539 patients in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia for three months. About half had nerve pain after surgery, while the rest had nerve pain after an accident or trauma.

Researchers found that pregabalin was not an effective pain reliever for the patients with traumatic nerve injuries, but the drug did provide better pain relief than placebo for the surgery patients.

"While these finding show that pregabalin is not effective in controlling the long-term pain for traumatic injury, it may provide relief for patients (that) experience post-surgical pain," said lead author John Markman, MD, director of the Translational Pain Research Program in the University of Rochester Department of Neurosurgery.

"The possibility that there was pain relief for those patients who had a hernia repair, or breast surgery for cancer, or a joint replacement lays the groundwork for future studies in these post-surgical syndromes where there is so much need for non-opioid treatments."

Pregabalin, which is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Lyrica, is FDA-approved for the treatment of chronic pain associated with shingles, spinal cord injury, fibromyalgia, and diabetic peripheral neuropathy.

It is also commonly prescribed as an "off label" treatment for other types of chronic pain and as an alternative to opioid medication.

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A major challenge for doctors is that biological changes in nerves and other tissues while healing from surgery or trauma vary from one patient to the next. There is also no diagnostic method that allows doctors to identify which patients will respond to a particular type of pain treatment.

"Given the rising rates of surgery and shrinking reliance on opioids, it is critical that we understand how to study new drugs that work differently in patients like the ones included in this study," Markman added.

While critics often say there is little or no evidence to support the long-term use of opioids, the same is true for other types of pain medication, including pregabalin. Nevertheless, in its guideline for opioids, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pregabalin and its chemical cousin gabapentin as alternatives for treating chronic pain – without even mentioning their side effects or potential for abuse.

Pregabalin and gabapentin belong to a class of nerve medication called gabapentinoids, which were originally developed to treat epilepsy, not pain. In recent, deaths involving gabapentinoids have increased in the UK, Australia and Canada, where some addicts have learned the drugs can heighten the euphoric effect of heroin and other opioids.

The use of pregabalin and gabapentin has tripled in the U.S. over the past decade, but health officials have only recently started looking into their misuse and abuse. While gabapentin has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

Studies Warn of Pregabalin Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies – one in Canada and one in Australia – should give pause to patients who use opioids and pregabalin (Lyrica), an anticonvulsant medication increasingly prescribed for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. Both studies found a number of overdose deaths that involve – but were not necessarily caused -- by pregabalin.

The Canadian study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at over 1,400 patients in Ontario on opioid medication from 1997 to 2016 who died from opioid-related causes. Another group of over 5,000 surviving opioid patients was used as a control group.

Researchers found that patients who were co-prescribed opioids and pregabalin had a significantly higher risk of an overdose.

The risk of death was over two times higher for patients receiving opioids and a high dose of pregabalin (over 300mg) compared to those who took opioids alone.

Patients on a low or moderate dose of pregabalin also had a heightened risk, although not as large.

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Researchers say pregabalin has a sedative effect and may interact with opioids in ways that increase respiratory depression. Few doctors and patients are aware of the risk, even though over half of Ontario residents who begin pregabalin therapy are also prescribed an opioid.

"There is an important drug interaction between opioids and pregabalin that can lead to increased risk of fatal overdose, particularly at high doses of pregabalin," lead author Tara Gomes, PhD, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told MedPage Today.

"Clinicians should consider carefully whether to prescribe opioids and pregabalin together. If they decide that both medications are clinically appropriate, they should start with low doses and monitor their patients closely."

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and belong to a class of anticonvulsant nerve medication called gabapentinoids. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the drugs as alternatives to opioid medication.  

U.S. health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, which are increasingly used by addicts to enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and other illicit opioids. While gabapentin  has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

“Although current product monographs for gabapentin contain warnings about serious adverse events when this agent is combined with opioids, those for pregabalin do not. The importance of our finding warrants a revision of the pregabalin product monographs,” wrote Gomes.

Pregabalin Abuse in Australia

Health officials in Australia are also concerned about the growing use of pregabalin.  Researchers at the NSW Poisons Information Centre say poisoning cases involving pregabalin rose from zero in 2005 to 376 cases in 2016.

“Our study shows a clear correlation between the rapid and continuous rise of pregabalin dispensing and an increase in intentional poisonings and deaths associated with pregabalin,” said lead author Dr. Rose Cairns, a specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre.

According to the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP), there have been 88 recorded deaths associated with pregabalin in recent years. Most of the deaths involved young, unemployed males who had a history of substance abuse, particularly with opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“We believe that Australian doctors may not be aware of the abuse potential of pregabalin,” Cairns said. “Most patients who are prescribed this medication are in the older population but the group who are at high risk of overdosing are much younger. These people are likely to have been prescribed pregabalin despite having a history of substance abuse.”

According to researchers, up to two-thirds of people who intentionally misused pregabalin had a prior documented substance abuse history. “Prescribers need to consider this growing body of evidence that pregabalin has abuse potential before prescribing, especially to patients with substance abuse history,” said Cairns.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian and Australian studies.

Lyrica and Neurontin Ineffective for Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Lyrica, Neurontin and other anti-convulsant drugs are ineffective for treating low back pain and may even be harmful to patients, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Prescriptions for anti-convulsant drugs have soared in recent years, as doctors seek “safer” alternatives to opioid pain medication.  Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) belong to a class of anti-convulsant nerve medications known as gabapentinoids. They are primarily used for treating nerve pain and fibromyalgia, but are increasingly being prescribed off-label to treat lower back and neck pain.

Australian researchers reviewed 9 placebo-controlled randomized trials and found high quality evidence that gabapentinoids did not reduce back pain or disability and often had side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness and nausea.

“The take-home message is that anti-convulsants are not effective and can lead to adverse effects in people with low back pain and radiating leg pain (eg, sciatica), so they should not be recommended to this patient population,” lead author Oliver Enke, MD, a researcher at the University of Sydney Medical School, told Helio Family Medicine.

Low back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability. Guidelines for treating low back pain usually recommend physical therapy, exercise and non-opioid pain relievers rather than stronger analgesics such as opioids or anti-convulsants.

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A 2017 study published in PLOS Medicine also warned that pregabalin and gabapentin were ineffective for low back pain and have a “significant risk of adverse effects.” 

PNN readers often complain about side effects from Lyrica and Neurontin.

“I have used both medicines and neither help with lower back pain for me,” said Sheri. “I will say the mental confusion and memory loss on Lyrica is very real, but it takes a slight edge of pain away in my body as a whole from the fibromyalgia.”

“I can vouch that Lyrica does not help with back pain,” said Debra. “It helped with the nerve pain but I thought I was literally losing my mind. I couldn't remember simple words or synonyms for words.”

“I've been taking gabapentin for almost six months; it has helped my peripheral neuropathy, but I still suffer every day from arthritis in every joint of my body, including my lower back,” another reader wrote.

Lyrica and Neurontin are both made by Pfizer and are two of the company’s top selling drugs, generating billions of dollars in sales annually. Lyrica is approved by the FDA to treat diabetic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles, and spinal cord injuries.

Neurontin is approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy and neuropathic pain caused by shingles, but is also widely prescribed off-label to treat depression, ADHD, migraine, fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder. According to one estimate, over 90% of Neurontin sales are for off-label uses. About 68 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. last year, compared to 44 million in in 2013.

There have been increasing reports of gabapentinoids being abused by drug addicts, who have learned they can use the medications to heighten the high from heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances. Gabapentin is not currently scheduled as a controlled substance by the DEA, while pregabalin is classified as a Schedule V controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for addiction and abuse.