Painkiller Deaths on the Rise

To find some of the most potent and potentially lethal drugs in the country, many people need look no further than their own medicine cabinets.

The number of prescription pain reliever-related deaths over 10 years is four times higher than the rate of deaths from cocaine and heroin—combined. In 2010, 60 percent of the 38,329 deaths from a drug overdose in the U.S. were attributed to prescription drugs. 

These and other startling figures come from a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), highlighting a growing epidemic of prescription drug misuse.

The death rate from prescription painkiller overdose—specifically opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone—rose 415 percent among women and 265 percent among men from 1999 to 2010, according to a CDC study released Tuesday.

Opioids are a class of drugs known to produce a euphoric high and are increasingly popular as recreational drugs. They are also highly addictive. 

Officials with the CDC say there’s been a five-fold increase in prescriptions for powerful painkilling medications, but no similar increase in the incidence of painful conditions that warrant them.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said numerous legal settlements with drug manufacturers over misleading marketing tactics directed at doctors reveals a larger problem with prescribing practices for potentially lethal painkillers. 

“Clearly, marketing is the reason we’ve seen this increase,” Frieden said Tuesday during a teleconference call with reporters.

The Mayo Clinic recently released figures showing that 70 percent of Americans were given at least one drug prescription in the past year, and opioid painkillers were among the three most common prescription types. That study showed women and the elderly are more likely than others to receive more prescription medications.

Why Women Are Disproportionately Affected

Women are more likely to be prescribed prescription opioids, to use the drugs chronically, and to receive higher doses, the CDC study says. This is in part because the most common types of chronic pain affect women more often and with greater intensity, but women are also more likely go “doctor shopping,” meaning that they see several different doctors to receive multiple prescriptions.

The CDC says these and other factors contributed to the doubling of emergency room visits for opioid misuse or abuse among women between 2004 and 2010.

While women are more likely to experience chronic pain, the report said, doctors’ focus on pain management must include other means besides prescription medication. These could include physical therapy, exercise, and other therapies.

Policy Changes Could Save Lives

The rising number of prescription drug overdoses in the U.S. has prompted the CDC to urge doctors to use better practices with respect to how they treat pain and issue prescriptions for painkillers.

“Health-care providers should follow guidelines for responsible prescribing, including screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems, when prescribing [opioid pain relievers],” CDC researchers said in their study.

Washington state recently worked with prescribers and insurers to reach a consensus on painkiller prescription guidelines and has since seen a 23 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths, Frieden said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately decides how doctors can prescribe drugs, and the CDC does not have the authority to push the FDA into action.

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