Misuse of pregabalin painkiller has risen 900 per cent in Australia

Australia is the latest country to report an alarming rise in the misuse of the nerve pain drug pregabalin. Pregabalin is a non-opioid drug that reduces pain through its actions on calcium channels in the brain. It was originally developed as an epilepsy drug but is now approved for treating nerve pain – the prickling, tingling sensation that can accompany conditions like diabetes and multiple sclerosis. In some countries, it is also approved for treating anxiety and fibromyalgia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that doctors are also increasingly prescribing pregabalin for other types of pain, due to growing concerns about the harms of opioid pain drugs like oxycodone and codeine, says Shalini Arunogiri at Monash University in Australia. This is reflected by increasing prescribing rates, she says. Pregabalin is now the thirteenth best-selling drug in the US, and dispensing rates have more than doubled in Australia and more than tripled in the UK in recent years. However, pregabalin is shaping up to be just as problematic as opioids, says Arunogiri. Her research shows that, since 2012, ambulance call-outs in the state of Victoria to people who have misused the drug have increased from 0.28 cases per 100,000 people to 3.32 cases per 100,000 people – a pattern which reflects increasing misuse in other parts of Australia.

Recreational use

Some recreational drug users have reported taking large doses of pregabalin for euphoric and sedative effects, says Arunogiri. Her study found that half the people who received paramedic treatment for pregabalin misuse had a history of drug or alcohol misuse, depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Similar misuse patterns have been noted in other countries. In England and Wales, for example, the number of deaths involving pregabalin or a related nerve pain drug called gabapentin rose from fewer than one per year before 2009 to 137 in 2015. A recent study in four US states found that 22 per cent of overdose deaths involved gabapentin. In response, the UK recently announced that it will make it illegal to possess pregabalin without a prescription and to supply it to others from April next year. The FDA is also considering whether to introduce tighter controls for pregabalin.

New Scientist, 26 November 2018 ; http://www.newscientist.com/