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Death toll from prescription painkillers now epidemic

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
CDC Vital Signs report highlights extent of prescription painkiller abuse.

According to the new report from the CDC, drug overdose deaths from prescription painkillers outrank street drugs like heroin and cocaine, reaching epidemic proportions.

The CDC Vital Signs report shows the death toll from overdosing on painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and the opioid drug agonist Opana, tripled from 1999 to 2008.

A large portion of overdose deaths are the result of people taking the medications recreationally. According to the CDC, in 2010, 12 million Americans over age 12 said they took painkillers in the past year just to get high, rather than for medical purposes.

Most of the drugs were prescribed to treat medical condition, but because of selling and sharing, painkiller end up in the hands of people who abuse them. In 2009, half a million ER visits were the result of misuse of the drugs.

The CDC reports there were enough prescriptions written for painkillers in 2010 to provide around the clock analgesia to every adult in America for a month.

In 2008, 15,000 people died of overdose from prescription narcotics. In 1999, the death toll was 4.000.

Men die from painkiller overdose more often than men

The report also found men are more likely to die from taking too many painkillers than women, with middle aged adults having the highest overdose rates. Rural area residents are impacted more than people living in cities.

A problem highlighted by the CDC is “pill mills” were patients can go to obtain prescriptions for pain medications but who have no real medical need. Patients desiring drugs for pain often “shop” for physicians, gathering a variety of drugs or more than one prescription for the same painkiller.

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The CDC says States can do a better job at tracking prescriptions, using electronic data. Consumers are warned to use the drugs according to directions, never share and keep drugs in a secure place where they won’t be lost or stolen.

A report published in April, 2011 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, showed unintentional prescription opioid pain medication overdoses exceeded deaths from suicide or motor vehicle crashes in 20 States.

The report, co-authored by CDC medical epidemiologist Leonard J. Paulozzi, MD, MPH and colleagues found there were 4.6 times as many deaths from accidental narcotic overdose in 2007 than from deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan combined from the start of both wars through Feb 20, 2011.

Insurance companies can help curb the escalating death toll from painkiller overdose by offering better reimbursement for physical therapy and other pain management therapies such as psychotherapy, exercise, and other non-medicinal methods.

The CDC also suggests physicians need to educate patients about safe use of the drugs and how to properly store and dispose of unused medications and prescribe only when other options have failed.

For patients who are given painkillers, patient-provider agreements for urine drug tests can help identify polypharmaceutical use.

The US government is continuing its efforts to track the number of annual deaths from prescription narcotics, as well as developing policies and programs for pain management that can keep patients safe.

This is not the first time the CDC has expressed concern about prescription painkillers,

According to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 2009, one in 5 high school students in the U.S. has abused prescription drugs, including the opioid painkillers OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.

The CDC is asking consumers, clinicians, policy makers and insurance companies to help change the way the drugs are prescribed to help reduce the number of people who abuse and overdose from the drugs. The new CDC report shows deaths from drug overdose of prescription painkillers is now a public health epidemic.



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