New Lyme Disease Test Could Lead to Earlier Treatment

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At long last, scientists are close to developing a new test to detect Lyme disease weeks sooner than current tests -- allowing patients to begin treatment earlier.

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread by ticks. Left untreated, it can lead to chronic conditions such as joint and back pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and neuropathy.

Borrelia burgdorferi was first identified as the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in 1983.  The antibody tests currently used to detect Borrelia were developed a decade later and have a number of shortcomings. They can take up to three weeks to get results and cannot distinguish between an active infection or an old one.

A team of scientists recently reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that advances in molecular diagnostics should make a new DNA test for Borrelia technically feasible.

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“These direct tests are needed because you can get Lyme disease more than once, features are often non-diagnostic and the current standard FDA-approved tests cannot distinguish an active, ongoing infection from a past cured one,” said lead author Steven Schutzer, MD, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“The problem is worsening because Lyme disease has increased in numbers to 300,000 per year in the United States and is spreading across the country and world.”

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Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. A delayed rash often appears at the site of the tick bite, which resembles a ring or bulls-eye. When there is no rash, a reliable laboratory test is needed to detect an active disease.

“The new tests that directly detect the Lyme agent’s DNA are more exact and are not susceptible to the same false-positive results and uncertainties associated with current FDA-approved indirect tests,” said Schutzer.

Lyme disease is usually treated with antibiotics, but some patients experience complications that lead to Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), with long-term symptoms such as fatigue, muscle and joint pain and cognitive issues. Autoimmune diseases have also been associated with chronic Lyme disease.

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.

Fibromyalgia and the High Risk of Suicide

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and about three times more likely than other chronic pain patients.

What can be done to reduce that alarmingly high risk?

One possible solution is for fibromyalgia patients to visit a doctor more often, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed health data for nearly 8,900 fibromyalgia patients, finding 34 known suicide attempts and 96 documented cases of suicidal thoughts – also known as suicide ideation. Then they looked at how often the patients saw a doctor.

On average, patients who had suicidal thoughts spent 1.7 hours seeing a doctor per year, while those who did not have suicide ideation visited a doctor an average of 5.9 hours per year.

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The difference was even more substantial for those who tried to commit suicide. Fibromyalgia patients who attempted suicide saw a doctor for less than an hour a year, compared to over 50 hours per year for those who did not try to kill themselves.

“Fifty hours versus one hour – that’s a staggering difference,” said lead author Lindsey McKernan, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They might have been at one appointment in a year and this disorder, fibromyalgia, takes a lot to manage. It takes a lot of engagement.”

Fibromyalgia is characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings. Because fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it and patients often feel like they are not believed or taken seriously by their family, friends and doctors.

Self-isolation could be one reason fibromyalgia patients don’t visit a physician as often as they should.

“If you really break it down the people who were having suicidal thoughts weren’t going into the doctor as much. I think about the people who might be falling through the cracks. Chronic pain in and of itself is very isolating over time,” said McKernan.

“Perhaps we can connect those individuals to an outpatient provider, or providers, to improve their care and reduce their suicide risk. We also might see patients at-risk establish meaningful relationships with providers whom they can contact in times of crisis,” said senior author Colin Walsh, MD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt.

In addition to seeing a primary care provider or rheumatologist, researchers say fibromyalgia patients should be getting regular exercise and physical therapy, and working with a psychologist or mental health provider.

“We looked at thousands of people in this study and not one who received mental health services of some kind went on to attempt suicide,” McKernan said.

“Often, when you are hurting, your body tells you to stay in bed. Moving is the last thing that you want to do. And when you are tired, when your mood is low, when your body aches, you don’t want to see anybody, but that is exactly what you need to do — contact your doctors, stay in touch with them, and move. It really can make a difference.”

Lady Gaga: ‘Chronic Pain Is No Joke’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

One of the few celebrities brave enough to speak openly about their battle with chronic pain is talking about it again – in a fashion magazine.

"Chronic pain is no joke. And it's every day waking up not knowing how you're going to feel," Lada Gaga told Vogue in a cover story.

Last year, Lady Gaga revealed that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression and insomnia.

A pain flare up forced her to cancel several concert appearances, which led some skeptics to complain that it was a publicity stunt to promote “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” a Netflix documentary that shows the singer being treated for chronic pain.

Lady Gaga says her fibromyalgia is very real – along with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she has from being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

"I get so irritated with people who don't believe fibromyalgia is real," she told Vogue. "For me, and I think for many others, it's really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder - all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result.

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“You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re just about to go down the really steep slope? That fear and the drop in your stomach? My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That’s what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it’s… miserable. I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do.”

The 32-year old singer said it took years for her to open up about the sexual assault.

“No one else knew. It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal,” she said. “I felt like I was lying to the world because I was feeling so much pain but nobody knew. So that’s why I came out and said that I have PTSD, because I don’t want to hide — any more than I already have to.”

In addition to fibromyalgia and PTSD, Lady Gaga also lives with synovitis, a chronic inflammation in her hip caused by overuse and injury.  Like many pain sufferers, the singer has tried a variety of different treatments to ease her discomfort – from massage to hot saunas to Epsom salt baths. In 2016, she posted on Instagram an image of herself sitting in a sauna wrapped in an emergency blanket.

Lady Gaga’s battle with chronic pain is only a small part of her interview with Vogue. She’s helping to promote A Star is Born – her new film with Brad Cooper that premiers next month.

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.

Growing Abuse of Gabapentin

By Christine Vestal, Stateline

Doctors who are cutting back on prescribing opioids increasingly are opting for gabapentin, a safer, non-narcotic drug recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By doing so, they may be putting their opioid-using patients at even greater risk.

Recently, gabapentin has started showing up in a substantial number of overdose deaths in hard-hit Appalachian states. The neuropathic (nerve-related) pain reliever was involved in more than a third of Kentucky overdose deaths last year.

Drug users say gabapentin pills, known as “johnnies” or “gabbies,” which often sell for less than a dollar each, enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and when taken alone in high doses can produce a marijuana-like high.

Medical researchers stress that more study is needed to determine the role gabapentin may have played in recent overdose deaths. However, a study of heroin users in England and Wales published last fall concluded that combining opioids and gabapentin “potentially increases the risk of acute overdose death” by hampering breathing and reversing users’ tolerance to heroin and other powerful opioids.

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Kentucky last year classified gabapentin as a controlled substance, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it in copious quantities and for long durations. The new classification also allows police to arrest anyone who illicitly sells the drug, although the state’s drug control chief, Van Ingram, said that was not the intent of the new law.

In the last two years, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming also have moved to control the flow of gabapentin by requiring doctors and pharmacists to check a prescription drug database before prescribing it to patients to make sure they aren’t already receiving gabapentin, or some other medication that interacts with it, from another physician.

In a statement to Stateline, Pfizer communications director Steven Danehy said, “Reports of misuse and abuse with this class of medicines are limited and typically involve patients with a prior history of substance abuse, including opioids.”

The drugmaker also pledged to “continue working with regulatory authorities and health officials to evaluate and monitor the safety of these medicines.”

Prescribed for Many Conditions

Approved by the FDA in 1993 for the treatment of epilepsy and the nerve pain associated with shingles, gabapentin is sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A generic form of the drug has been available since 2004 and is now sold by several other companies as well.

Gabapentin is now one of the most popular prescription drugs in the United States, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the 10th-most-prescribed medication in 2016. Its more expensive cousin, pregabalin, sold as Lyrica and also made by Pfizer, was the eighth best-selling.

Many doctors recommend gabapentin to patients for a long list of disorders, including hot flashes, migraines, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain associated with diabetes and spinal injuries. Some doctors also prescribe it for anxiety and insomnia.

Now, research is underway to determine whether gabapentin may be effective as a treatment for alcoholism.

Already, it is widely used to ease the symptoms of drug and alcohol detoxification. And addiction specialists routinely use gabapentin to manage pain in people who are either addicted or at risk of addiction to opioids and other substances.

Alone, high doses of gabapentin have not been found to affect breathing. The vast majority of gabapentin deaths, about 4 in 5, also involved opioids, according to the journal Addiction.

People who stop taking the medication abruptly, however, can suffer withdrawal symptoms such as trembling, sweats and agitation.

In February, Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb said the agency was reviewing the misuse of gabapentin and, for now, had determined no action was necessary. Similarly, the CDC has not issued a warning about gabapentin, nor has the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Editor's note: the CDC opioid guidelines recommend gabapentin without any mention of the risk of abuse or overdose associated with the drug, or of possible side effects such as weight gain, anxiety and mood disorders.)

Early Signs of Abuse

In Kentucky, Ingram said it has been clear to police and pharmacists for the last three or four years that gabapentin was becoming an increasingly popular street drug. “People were seeking early refills, claiming they lost their prescriptions and openly conducting transactions in parking lots outside of drug stores,” he said.

But since it wasn’t a controlled substance, nothing was done about it. That’s likely to start changing with the new law, he said.

“Misuse of gabapentin is just one more collateral effect of the opioid epidemic,” said Caleb Alexander, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying the heroin and prescription drug epidemic. When one drug becomes less available, drug users historically seek out alternatives, he said. “What is most surprising is the sheer magnitude of its use.”

The share of Appalachian drug users who reported using gabapentin to get high increased nearly 30-fold from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Paul Earley, an addiction doctor practicing in Georgia and a board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said, “We knew that a small subset of our addiction patients would abuse gabapentin.” But he said it wasn’t until 2016, when Ohio sounded an alarm about the drug’s association with overdose deaths, that addiction doctors started taking the problem more seriously.

“For years, we considered gabapentin to be ‘good for what ails you,’” Earley said. “But I’m much more cautious than I used to be. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the opioid epidemic, it’s that we need to rethink how we prescribe drugs we once assumed were safe.”

This is story is republished with permission by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Breakthrough Blood Test Shows the ‘Color of Pain’

By Steve Weakley

A revolutionary new blood test developed by Australian researchers could give doctors instant insight into the severity of chronic pain by identifying colored biomarkers in the blood.  The “painHS” test uses advanced light spectrum analysis to identify the molecular structure of pain in immune cells.

“We are literally quantifying the color of pain,” explains neuroscientist Mark Hutchinson, PhD, a professor at the University of Adelaide Medical School in Australia.  “We’ve now discovered that we can use the natural color of biology to predict the severity of pain. What we’ve found is that persistent chronic pain has a different natural color in immune cells than in a situation where there isn’t persistent pain.”

Hutchinson and his colleagues discovered molecular changes in the immune cells of chronic pain patients. These pain biomarkers can be instantly identified through hyperspectral imaging, giving doctors the ability to measure a patient’s pain tolerance and sensitivity.

The test could potentially provide physicians with the first biology-based test to measure pain as the “5th vital sign” and to justify prescribing pain medication or other therapies.

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Hutchinson was quick to point out that the test is not intended replace a patient’s description of pain to their physician.  Pain is subjective and varies from patient to patient, depending on their medical condition and many other factors.  Current tests used to measure pain in adults, such as the sad and smiley faces of the Wong-Baker pain scale, are so simple they were initially developed for young children.

“Self-reporting (by patients) is still going to be key but what this does mean is that those ‘forgotten people’ who are unable to communicate their pain conditions such as babies or people with dementia can now have their condition diagnosed and treated,” said Hutchinson, who believes the test could also revolutionize pain treatment in animals.

“Animals can’t tell us if they’re in pain but here we have a Dr. Doolittle type test that enables us to ‘talk’ to the animals so we can find out if they are experiencing pain and then we can help them."

Hutchinson says the test could also help speed the development of new drugs that could target particular kinds of chronic pain, and could eliminate the need for placebos in clinical trials by giving an instant indicator of a treatment’s effectiveness.

“We now know there is a peripheral cell signal, so we could start designing new types of drugs for new types of cellular therapies that target the peripheral immune system to tackle central nervous system pain,” he explained.

Hutchinson thinks the “painHS” test could be widely available to pain specialists and general practitioners in as little as 18 months and could provide a cost-effective tool to measure the severity of pain in patients with back problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, migraines and other conditions.

Several other blood tests have already been developed to diagnose patients with specific chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.

IQuity Labs recently introduced a blood test that can identify fibromyalgia by analyzing ribonucleic acid (RNA) in blood molecules. EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test in 2013. That test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells.

New Blood Test Launched for Fibromyalgia

By Pat Anson, Editor

A Tennessee laboratory has launched an innovative new blood test that uses RNA analysis to diagnose patients with fibromyalgia. IQuityLabs says its test – called IsolateFibromyalgia – can identify fibromyalgia within a week and with over 90 percent accuracy. The test costs $599.

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a molecule that plays an essential role in sensing and communicating responses to cellular signals. Unlike DNA tests, which can only predict the likelihood of someone having a disease, RNA tests show what is actually happening at a cellular level. 

IMAGE COURTESY OF IQUITY

IMAGE COURTESY OF IQUITY

“When we look at RNA in blood, we’re looking at a snapshot of what’s actually taking place at that moment inside the patient’s blood cells,” explained Chase Spurlock, CEO of IQuity. “Using that information, we can decipher those molecular communication patterns, those RNA signals that are taking place, and figure out does it look like fibromyalgia syndrome or does it look like something else?

“In the case of fibromyalgia, we completed our clinical validation studies and our accuracy is at 94 percent and the sensitivity and specificity are greater than 90 percent as well. So, it’s a highly actionable test.” 

The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 5 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, headaches, mood swings and insomnia. It often takes years for a patient to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia and some doctors still refuse to recognize it as a disease.

In 2013, California-based EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test. The FM/a test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells. Fibromyalgia patients have fewer chemokines and cytokines than healthy people, according to EpicGenetics, and have weaker immune systems as a result. Critics say the FM/a test is unreliable and the same molecule levels can be found in people with other disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Spurlock says RNA testing is more specific and accurate than DNA or other blood tests used to diagnose autoimmune conditions. 

“I think what this test will do is allow for clarity and efficiency in the provider-patient relationship,” he said. “Once we receive the blood samples here, our lab technicians process the sample and we report the result back within a week.” 

Last year IQuity launched blood tests to diagnose multiple sclerosis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It hopes to further develop the science to diagnose other autoimmune disorders.

Should Gabapentin Be a Controlled Substance?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should consider scheduling gabapentin (Neurontin) as a controlled substance, according to researchers who studied the recreational use of the drug in Kentucky.

Gabapentin is a nerve medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy and post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles), but it is also widely prescribed off-label to treat fibromyalgia, migraines, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends gabapentin as a safer alternative to opioids.

Sales of gabapentin have soared in recent years. About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in the U.S. in 20l6, a 49% increase in just five years.

But drug abusers have also discovered that gabapentin can heighten the effects of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other substances.

"People are looking for other drugs to substitute for opioids, and gabapentin has filled that place for some," said Rachel Vickers Smith, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Nursing. “Some have said it gives them a high similar to opioids. It had been easy to get a prescription for gabapentin and it's very cheap."

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Vickers Smith and her colleagues recruited 33 people from Appalachian Kentucky who used gabapentin recreationally and asked them about their drug use. Many reported they started taking gabapentin over 10 years earlier for a legitimate medical condition, such as pain and anxiety. Over time, they started using the drug to help them relax, sleep and get high.

“Focus group responses highlighted the low cost of gabapentin for the purpose of getting high and noted increasing popularity in the community, particularly over the last 2 years. Gabapentin was a prominent drug of abuse in two cohorts of the primarily opioid-using individuals. Providers should be aware of gabapentin’s abuse potential, and a reexamination of the need for scheduling is warranted,” researchers reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

In 2017, Kentucky became the first state to classify gabapentin as a controlled substance, which makes it more difficult for the medication to be prescribed. Ohio’s Substance Abuse Monitoring Network also issued an alert warning of gabapentin misuse across the state.

‘Snake Oil of the 20th Century’

Gabapentin was first approved by the FDA in 1993 and sold by Pfizer under the brand name Neurontin. A few years later, it was so widely prescribed that a top Pfizer executive called gabapentin “the snake oil of the twentieth century” in an email. The company was later fined hundreds of millions of dollars for promoting Neurontin’s off-label use.

"Early on, it was assumed to have no abuse potential," says Vickers Smith. "There's a need to examine it in further detail, especially if prescribing it is going to be encouraged."

Federal health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin and pregabalin (Lyrica).

"Our preliminary findings show that abuse of gabapentinoids doesn't yet appear to be widespread, but use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said last week at a conference on opioid prescribing. "We're concerned that abuse and misuse of these drugs may result in serious adverse events such as respiratory depression and death. We want to understand changes in how patients are using these medications."

Gottlieb said FDA investigators are looking at websites and social media where opioid users discuss their use of gabapentinoids.

"We know we need to investigate and respond to signs of abuse as soon as signals emerge. We need to get ahead of these problems," he said.

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 a low potential for addiction and abuse.  

Study Finds Little Evidence Shock Therapy Works

By Pat Anson, Editor

There is little evidence that electric shock therapy is an effective treatment for fibromyalgia, headache, degenerative joint pain and other chronic pain conditions, according to a new study by researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cranial electric stimulation (CES) uses electrodes placed on the head to send small electric shocks to the brain to stimulate neurotransmitters.  Consumer interest in the therapy is increasing and several manufacturers make portable CES devices for home use -- such as the Fisher Wallace stimulator and Alpha-Stim AID -- marketing them as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia.

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But in a review of 26 clinical trials published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found “limited evidence” to support the use of CES to treat these medical conditions. Many of the studies were small, had questionable validity and the reported results were often inconsistent. Some studies suggested that CES therapy could help patients with depression and anxiety, but the VA researchers say better studies were needed to prove it.

“The evidence for the effectiveness and safety of CES is sparse. Low-strength evidence suggests a beneficial association in patients with anxiety and depression. The intervention is probably safe, but strength of evidence is low,” wrote lead author Paul Shekelle, MD, of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In an editorial also published in the journal, a physician who uses CES therapy on his patients called the study findings “disappointing,” but said he and his colleagues would probably keep using the devices.

“I am not sure what my hospital will do with the information from this review. I know I will be less enthusiastic about recommending CES; however, I doubt that we will stop using it,” wrote Wayne Jonas, MD, of Samueli Integrative Health Programs in Alexandria, VA.

“When one of my patients, who had chronic pain, depression, and insomnia, finished her first CES treatment, she said she loved it. ‘I felt really relaxed,’ she said. ‘Can I have one of these at home?’ Our policy is to have patients try the treatment in the clinic at least 3 times. If it improves pain, depression, or insomnia, the patient can apply to get a home machine.”

The Food and Drug Administration first approved the use of CES in 1978 to treat depression, anxiety and insomnia. Because of that initial approval, the CES devices on the market today have not been required to prove their safety and effectiveness. The devices can be easily purchased online, but a prescription is required in the U.S.