By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Health officials in the UK are warning women of childbearing age that pregabalin (Lyrica), a drug commonly prescribed for pain, anxiety and epilepsy, raises the risk of major birth defects.
A recent study in four Nordic countries of over 2,700 pregnancies found that 5.6% of babies born to women who took pregabalin in the first three months of pregnancy had birth abnormalities. That compares to 4.1% of babies whose mothers did not use pregabalin.
“The study showed that taking pregabalin during early pregnancy was associated with a slightly increased chance of having a baby who is born with a physical birth abnormality. It is important to note that this study could not show that pregabalin was the cause of the physical birth abnormalities,” the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said in a new safety alert.
The birth defects associated with pregabalin primarily involved the nervous system, eyes, face, urinary system and genitals. The MHRA – which regulates drugs in the UK – cautioned pregnant women not to stop taking pregabalin without talking to a doctor first.
“If you think you may be pregnant and are currently taking pregabalin, you should set up an appointment with your GP, specialist or nurse at your earliest opportunity, to discuss any concerns you may have. However, do continue to take pregabalin as prescribed until you can speak to them,” the MHRA alert said. “Untreated epilepsy, pain, or anxiety could be harmful to you and your unborn baby. It is important that you talk to your healthcare professional before stopping pregabalin or making any changes to your usual medicines.”
An international study in 2016 also linked pregabalin to birth defects. Women taking pregabalin were found to be six times more likely to have a baby with a major birth defect, including abnormalities in the heart, central nervous system (CNS) and other organs.
In recent years, pregabalin has come under increased scrutiny in the UK. In 2021, the MHRA said pregabalin was associated with serious breathing problems in people over age 65 and in patients with compromised respiratory systems.
Doctors in Northern Ireland were also told last year not to prescribe pregabalin for neuropathic pain due to a “significant increase” in drug-related deaths involving the drug.
In 2019, pregabalin and gabapentin (Neurontin) were both rescheduled as Class C drugs in the UK due to a rising number of overdose deaths. Health experts said the medications cause “an elevated mood in users” and could have serious side effects when combined with other drugs.
Lyrica and Neurontin are two of Pfizer’s top selling drugs and generate billions of dollars in annual sales. They belong to a class of nerve medication called gabapentinoids that were originally developed to treat seizures, but are now widely prescribed as an alternative to opioid painkillers. A 2019 study found little evidence that gabapentinoids should be used to treat pain and said their effectiveness was often exaggerated by prescribing guidelines.
In the United States, where Lyrica is approved for fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain, seizures and postherpetic neuralgia, the FDA’s lengthy warning label states that “there are no adequate and well-controlled studies with Lyrica in pregnant women,” but at the same time cautions that “Lyrica may harm your unborn baby.”
An earlier warning label said it was “not known if Lyrica will harm your unborn baby.”