At one of my recent jail medical clinics, three patients in a row requested prescriptions for gabapentin. One was a patient newly arrived from the Idaho Department of Corrections to be housed at my jail due to prison overcrowding. He had already been prescribed gabapentin at the prison for complaints of low back pain radiating to one leg and wanted me to continue it–forever. The second patient was prescribed gabapentin by his outside practitioner for a boxer’s fracture that had been surgically repaired years ago. The third was prescribed gabapentin at a previous jail due to “nerve damage” from an old gunshot wound to the upper arm (he had a large scar but no functional disability or decreased sensation).
Gabapentin prescriptions for nonspecific musculoskeletal pain have clearly become common in the community and in corrections. These three patients represent only a fraction of the similar cases I see in my jails! I suspect that this gabapentin-mania is being driven by a belief that gabapentin is preferable to prescribing narcotics (though I would not think any of the three patients above would be candidates for narcotics). Gabapentin, in fact, is often prescribed for musculoskeletal pain in my community first line—before NSAIDS and Tylenol, even—and many, like these three patients, subsequently believe that gabapentin is something they will need to take for the rest of their lives.
The problem is that prescribing gabapentin for
musculoskeletal pain is not evidence-based and (in my opinion) bad medicine.
Through many years of experience in correctional medicine, I occasionally have come up with a speech or dialogue that works especially well with patients; a speech which I then use over and over again. One of these speeches is one I use to get patients to take fewer NSAIDs.
One of the most fearful and frustrating events in my correctional medicine world used to be when a new chronic pain patient would arrive in my clinic. A typical patient would be a “Ralph,” a middle-aged man who has had chronic back pain for many years. Ralph has had a couple of back surgeries, steroid injections and more than one kind of stimulator, none of which has been effective. He arrived at the jail taking a long list of sedating medications such as muscle relaxers, gabapentin, and sleeping aids plus, of course, big opioids. In addition, Ralph has alcohol abuse issues. The reason he is in jail is a felony DUI charge. Now he is in my medical clinic, looking expectantly at me. How am I going to fix his pain problem?
The answer, of course, is that I am not. I am not that smart. He has already seen lots of doctors, including pain specialists and surgeons, who have tried almost everything that can be tried and they have not fixed his chronic pain problem. I’m not going to be able to, either. In my opinion, the most common and serious mistake made in the treatment of chronic pain in corrections is when we imply that we can eliminate chronic pain.