The number of deaths in the U.S. due to prescription painkiller overdose has more than tripled in the past decade, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 15,000 people per year (about 40 per day) die from prescription painkillers. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden calls the current situation an epidemic.
The casualties from this deadly epidemic include a cross-section of Americans, from a 53 year-old-mother and her 35-year-old-son in a small Kentucky town who obtained pills from Florida pain clinics to a 13-year-old in Utah who took pills belonging to a friend’s grandmother. In 2008, 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger died in his New York apartment from a toxic combination of several prescription painkillers.
Today nearly three out of four prescription drug deaths are caused by prescription painkillers. Deaths from opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin now outnumber deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. The CDC reported earlier this year that nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are addicted to some type of opiate drug and that painkiller abuse is responsible for the majority of poisoning cases treated in the nation’s hospital emergency rooms (about 475,000 visits in 2009).
The CDC report states that 12 million Americans over the age of 12 (about 1 in 20) misused prescription painkillers in 2010. About half of prescription painkiller deaths involve another drug, including illegal drugs like heroin. Many deaths also involved alcohol. The age group most likely to overdose on painkillers is middle-aged adults, while Caucasians and Native Americans are racial groups that are most affected. People on Medicaid are prescribed prescription painkillers at twice the rate of patients not on Medicaid and are 6 times more likely to overdose.
Prescription painkillers like OxyContin are addictive because they bind to receptors in the brain to decrease an individual’s perception of pain. This leads to a feeling of euphoria but also brings physical dependence and the risk of addiction. A side effect of opioid painkillers is depression of the respiratory system and a slowdown in breathing. When people abuse prescription painkillers, they take more and more pills to experience euphoric feelings and fight of symptoms of withdrawal. Larger doses reduce breathing until it stops, leading to death by overdose.
In a press conference announcing the findings of the new CDC study, Frieden blamed the burden of the epidemic on irresponsible doctors rather than on street corner drug pushers. CDC findings indicate that the majority of prescription painkillers that are abused are obtained from pharmacies with prescriptions from doctors. From there, the pills are often diverted to people who used them without medical cause. More than 75% of people who abuse prescription painkillers obtain them from someone else’s prescription.
The CDC is calling on states to protect the public health and reverse the prescription drug overdose epidemic by monitoring prescriptions for controlled drugs and providing more prescription oversight for state benefits programs like Medicaid. States should also enact and enforce laws against “doctor shopping” (the practice of visiting multiple doctors for prescriptions) and crack down on pain clinics that are little more than pill mills. The CDC is also calling for increased access to treatment programs to help those who are struggling with prescription drug abuse and addiction.
Read more about prescription drug addiction.