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Q&A: Restricted Medication Use

By Penny Giovanetti, D.O., Manager, Aerospace Medical Specialties Division
Source: FAA Safety Briefing, July/August 2017

Q. I have chronic back and sciatica pain. I had a L 4-5 fusion 7 years ago. My doctors say Gabapentin would help my neuropathy. I have tried it and it helped tremendously with no side effects at all. I know it was made for seizures which I never have had, but I don’t understand why someone like me can’t use it? Also, if I did occasionally use it, would I be able to fly if I waited “X” amount of days and if so what would “X” be? Same question if you took a pain killer like Vicodin or a half of Percocet? Is there a time period that would allow a pilot to occasionally use a restricted medicine but not fly until after so many hours/days after use? I would think after a surgery a pilot would be given pain killers, but eventually fly again after a certain amount of time? Thank you.

A. We must always consider the reason a medication is being taken and not just the medication itself. If you have chronic back pain and neuropathy, it may not be in your best interest to take medications episodically. Nor would it be wise to fly with distracting back pain and neuropathic symptoms. All three of these medications depress the central nervous system. If you and your treating doctor find that rare use of these medications are in your best interest, the minimum wait times are 24 hours for Vicodin, 36 hours for gabapentin, and 72 hours for Percocet.

Send your questions to SafetyBriefing@faa.gov. They will be forwarded to the Aerospace Medical Certification Division, without your name, and the answer will be published in an upcoming issue of FAA Safety Briefing.

Penny Giovanetti, D.O., received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, a master’s in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine from the University of Iowa and a doctorate from Des Moines University. She completed a 27-year career as an Air Force flight surgeon. She is board certified in aerospace medicine, occupational medicine, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. She is also a Fellow of the Aerospace Medical Association and a private pilot.