How Gabapentin Can Treat Shingles

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How Gabapentin Can Treat Shingles

Chicken Pox.Shingles
Laurie Leiker
By Laurie Leiker
Jul 24, 2019 - Updated Apr 01, 2021
Gary Rothbard, MD, MS
Medically Reviewed ByGary Rothbard, MD, MS
Woman with shingles nerve pain pictured from behind, reaching to touch her back with her hand.

Chickenpox used to be a fact of life for every child, even after vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella came along.  Of those four major childhood diseases, chickenpox seemed the most benign, with few long-term side effects. At least, that’s what we were always told.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and what are we finding?

Regardless of whether you got the chickenpox vaccine or not, there are long-term side effects.  Chickenpox can come back, and this time, with a vengeance.

The illness accompanying it has a special name — shingles.

What is Shingles?

Shingles, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “a viral infection that causes a painful rash.” It tends to pop up mostly around the middle of the body, although cases of shingles have been found on the face and head, or other body parts.

The rash caused by shingles can be tremendously painful, attacking the nerve endings as the rash progresses.

But what does this have to do with chickenpox?

The same virus that causes chickenpox — varicella (herpes) zoster — causes shingles.  If you had chickenpox as a child, the virus lies dormant in your nerve endings, just waiting for a time when your immune system is compromised by stress, illness, or other factors.

Not everyone who had chickenpox will get shingles, but for those who develop the disease, the pain can be intense; in some cases, even clothing touching the skin heightens pain.

Fortunately for most, the pain goes away as soon as the rash fades, but in other cases, the pain never fades; it morphs into what’s called "post-herpetic neuralgia" (PHN).

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Gabapentin: How does it help?

Enter gabapentin, a widely-prescribed generic medication also known by its brand name of Neurontin.

Gabapentin was developed as an anti-seizure medication, prescribed for those with epilepsy.  Over time, medical professionals found it also worked well for other nerve diseases, including sciatica, and, more recently, PHN. Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant, so it can help prevent PHN from even starting.

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It blocks the shooting pain traveling down the nerve endings, reducing the risk of shingles patients developing PHN.

According to one study in 2017, published by the National Institutes of Health, showed that up to 25-percent of shingles patients would go on to develop PHN, which is too large to ignore.

The premise of the study was to test standard treatment alone and with added gabapentin.  The result showed gabapentin worked well on the nerve pain itself, but it didn’t prevent PHN from developing.

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More recently, the Mayo Clinic reported on a study of diabetic patients being treated with gabapentin for diabetic neuropathy before developing shingles.  The patients continued to take their gabapentin throughout the duration of the trial.

Only six-percent developed PHN, compared to 26-percent who were not taking gabapentin ahead of time.

The bottom line is that gabapentin can help with nerve pain from shingles, and might work well for those who develop post-herpetic neuralgia after the shingles rash disappears.

Laurie Leiker

Laurie Leiker

Laurie Leiker started working with consumers back in the 1990s, as a producer of the consumer-advice radio show, The Troubleshooter, in Denver, Colorado. Since then, she has contributed to numerous websites, helping consumers find the best deals and avoid problems. Laurie is a regular contributor to the RxSaver blog, as well as other websites across the web.

Gary Rothbard, MD, MS

Gary Rothbard, MD, MS

Gary Rothbard, MD, MS, has been engaged in medical writing for 15+ years, covering a variety of topics and targeting different audiences. His work includes abstracts, manuscripts, posters, slide decks, flashcard sets, textbook writing/reviewing, lecture summaries, drug summaries, feature articles, study summaries, advice columns and more.

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