Opioid Overdoses Rising
> 1/23/2010 6:40:23 PM

Subjects who take prescription opioids for pain relief are overdosing and dying at rates that have grown high enough to raise serious public health concerns. Contrary to popular belief, very few of these deaths are due to recreational drug abuse.

A newly published government study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and designed to examine overdose and death rates among patients taking powerful meds like Oxycontin, Vicodin and methadone prompted an official response from the White House itself. A. Thomas McLellan, Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, suggested that stricter oversight of related prescription practices may be necessary. As these drugs grow more common, public health concerns must be more carefully scrutinized.

The study in question concerned nearly 10,000 subjects across the country who received at least three individual opioid prescriptions for the treatment of chronic pain between 1997 and 2005. Prescription rates have soared in the last 15 years, so a greater number of related health problems should be expected. This doesn't mean that the drugs have become more dangerous, since overdoses increased in direct proportion to distribution rates - methadone prescriptions have risen more than 800% since 1997, and related overdoses are at least seven times as common today as they were 13 years ago. It would seem that prescription practices are, if anything, slightly safer now. 

The percentages are also relatively small: only 6 of the 10,000 subjects died during the study, and the highest annual overdose rate was 1.8%, affecting approximately 1 in 50 subjects who took at least 100 milligrams each day. When applied on a nationwide scale, however, the numbers look much more serious. 13,800 Americans died of pharmaceutical opiate overdose in 2006, and the vast majority of that total received the drugs via legal prescription. There were also 7 times as many non-fatal overdoses, leaving the ultimate number of incidents close to 100,000.

Researchers found dosage to be perhaps the most important variable in the opioid equation: subjects who took the largest daily doses (100 milligrams or more) were nine times more likely to OD in any given year than those who took the smallest (20 mg). This finding suggests that doctors must monitor each case far more carefully, especially when subjects' symptoms are severe and long-lasting enough to warrant multiple prescriptions over a period of months or years. It's best for subjects to stick with the same physician for long-term pain because someone who's familiar with their conditions can prescribe meds more effectively.

These drugs prove crucial for providing relief to millions who suffer from conditions like extreme arthritis and chronic back pain, and they're almost always safe when taken as prescribed. But far too many Americans continue to overdose on these drugs, and they should almost certainly be distributed more conservatively in the future.

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