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Gabapentin for alcohol use disorder: A good option, or cause for concern?

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References

Bottom line: Gabapentin is useful for mild withdrawal

Data suggest that gabapentin offers benefits for managing mild alcohol withdrawal. Improved residual craving and sleep measures are clinically important because they are risk factors for relapse. Mood and anxiety also improve with gabapentin, further indicating a therapeutic effect.

Gabapentin’s benefits for moderate and severe alcohol withdrawal have not been established. Seizures occurred during withdrawal despite gabapentin treatment, but whether from an insufficient dose, patient susceptibility, or lack of gabapentin efficacy is not clear. Best results occurred at the 1,200-mg daily dose, but benefits may not apply to patients with severe withdrawal. In addition, many studies were small, limiting the strength of conclusions.

Across most studies of gabapentin for alcohol withdrawal, advantages included a smoother transition into early abstinence due to improved sleep, mood, and anxiety, alleviating common triggers for a return to drinking. Gabapentin also carries less reinforcing potential than benzodiazepines. These qualities fueled interest in trying gabapentin to improve long-term abstinence.

GABAPENTIN FOR RELAPSE PREVENTION

Although naltrexone and acamprosate are the first-line treatments for relapse prevention, they do not help all patients and are more effective when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.1,29,30 For patients in whom standard treatments are not effective or tolerated, gabapentin may provide a reasonable alternative, and several randomized controlled trials have examined its use for this role.

Gabapentin alone is better than placebo

Furieri and Nakamura-Palacios4 assessed the use of gabapentin for relapse prevention in Brazilian outpatients (N = 60) who had averaged 27 years of drinking and consumed 17 drinks daily for the 90 days before baseline. After detoxification with diazepam and vitamins, patients were randomized to either gabapentin 300 mg twice daily or placebo for 4 weeks.

Compared with placebo, gabapentin significantly reduced cravings and lowered the percentage of heavy drinking days and the number of drinks per day, with a significant increase in the percentage of abstinent days. These self-reported measures correlated with decreases in gamma-glutamyl transferase, a biological marker for heavy drinking.

Brower et al31 investigated the use of gabapentin in 21 outpatients with AUD and insomnia who desired to remain abstinent. They were randomized to gabapentin (up to 1,500 mg at night) or placebo for 6 weeks. Just 14 participants completed the study; all but 2 were followed without treatment until week 12.

Gabapentin was associated with significantly lower relapse rates at 6 weeks (3 of 10 in the gabapentin group vs 9 of 11 in the placebo group) and at 12 weeks (6 of 10 in the gabapentin group vs 11 of 11 in the placebo group, assuming the 2 patients lost to follow-up relapsed). No difference between groups was detected for sleep measures in this small study. However, other studies have found that gabapentin for AUD improves measures of insomnia and daytime drowsiness—predictors of relapse—compared with other medications.16

High-dose gabapentin is better

Mason et al2 randomized 150 outpatients with alcohol dependence to 12 weeks of daily treatment with either gabapentin (900 mg or 1,800 mg) or placebo after at least 3 days of abstinence. All participants received counseling. Drinking quantity and frequency were assessed by gamma-glutamyl transferase testing.

Patients taking gabapentin had better rates of abstinence and cessation of heavy drinking than those taking placebo. During the 12-week study, the 1,800-mg daily dose showed a substantially higher abstinence rate (17%) than either 900 mg (11%) or placebo (4%). Significant dose-related improvements were also found for heavy drinking days, total drinking quantity, and frequency of alcohol withdrawal symptoms that predispose to early relapse, such as poor sleep, cravings, and poor mood. There were also significant linear dose effects on rates of abstinence and nondrinking days at the 24-week posttreatment follow-up.

Gabapentin plus naltrexone is better than naltrexone alone

Anton et al5 examined the efficacy of gabapentin combined with naltrexone during early abstinence. The study randomly assigned 150 people with AUD to one of the following groups:

  • 16 weeks of naltrexone (50 mg/day) alone
  • 6 weeks of naltrexone (50 mg/day) plus gabapentin (up to 1,200 mg/day), followed by 10 weeks of naltrexone alone
  • Placebo.

All participants received medical management.

Over the first 6 weeks, those receiving naltrexone plus gabapentin had a longer interval to heavy drinking than those taking only naltrexone. By week 6, about half of those taking placebo or naltrexone alone had a heavy drinking day, compared with about 35% of those taking naltrexone plus gabapentin. Those receiving the combination also had fewer days of heavy drinking, fewer drinks per drinking day, and better sleep than the other groups. Participants in the naltrexone-alone group were more likely to drink heavily during periods in which they reported poor sleep. No significant group differences were found in measures of mood.

Gabapentin enacarbil is no better than placebo

Falk et al,32 in a 2019 preliminary analysis, examined data from a trial of gabapentin enacarbil, a prodrug formulation of gabapentin. In this 6-month double-blind study, 346 people with moderate AUD at 10 sites were randomized to gabapentin enacarbil extended-release 600 mg twice a day or placebo. All subjects received a computerized behavioral intervention.

No significant differences between groups were found in drinking measures or alcohol cravings, sleep problems, depression, or anxiety symptoms. However, a dose-response analysis found significantly less drinking for higher doses of the drug.

Bottom line: Evidence of benefits mixed but risk low

The efficacy of gabapentin as a treatment for AUD has varied across studies as a function of dosing and formulation. Daily doses have ranged from 600 mg to 1,800 mg, with the highest dose showing advantages in one study for cravings, insomnia, anxiety, dysphoria, and relapse.2 Thus far, gabapentin immediate-release has performed better than gabapentin enacarbil extended-release. All forms of gabapentin have been well-tolerated in AUD trials.

The 2018 American Psychiatric Association guidelines stated that gabapentin had a small positive effect on drinking outcomes, but the harm of treatment was deemed minimal, especially relative to the harms of chronic drinking.33 The guidelines endorse the use of gabapentin in patients with moderate to severe AUD who select gabapentin from the available options, or for those who are nonresponsive to or cannot tolerate naltrexone or acamprosate, as long as no contraindications exist. It was also noted that even small effects may be clinically important, considering the significant morbidity associated with AUD.

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