LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A drug that has been touted as a safe alternative to opioid painkillers is now on the radar of health officials and law enforcement officials as it is being found in more and more overdose deaths. Gabapentin is a nerve pain medication that is typically used to treat seizures and pain associated with shingles. But amid the opioid epidemic that has ripped through the country, doctors have been prescribing it for a growing number of conditions in an attempt to find new ways to offer pain relief to patients — and more people appear to be abusing it.

In Kentucky, lawmakers have classified the drug as a controlled substance after it was found in nearly one-fourth of all overdose deaths in the state's biggest city last year. As first reported in The Courier-Journal of Louisville, an analysis of coroner data discovered gabapentin was found in 93 of 407 fatal overdoses in Jefferson County, where Louisville is located.

Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy executive director Van Ingram says gabapentin showed in roughly one-third of all drug deaths in 2016 across the state. 

In neighboring Ohio, police have also reported a significant rise in the abuse of gabapentin.     

University of Louisville nursing school professor Rachel Vickers Smith says gabapentin isn't believed to be the cause of the local deaths, because more powerful drugs like heroin were detected as well, but gabapentin could have contributed. The drug is sold under the brand names Neurontin, Gralise, and Horizant.

2017 study of opioid users reported gabapentin and related drugs were easy to obtain and "reinforced the effects of heroin." Some users "were concerned it induced 'blackouts' and increased the risk of overdose," the researchers noted.

"Unfortunately, we now need to worry about it because people are abusing it," Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a pain and addiction specialist in Kentucky, told The Courier-Journal. 

"Alone, it's not something that will stop your breathing or your heart," he said. "But if you take it along with a drug like heroin or fentanyl, together it might be enough to make you stop breathing and put you over the edge." 

Continue reading at CBSNews.com