Methadone Responsible For 30 Percent Of Painkiller Deaths

By Amir Khan on July 5, 2012 9:30 AM EDT

Pills
Methadone is responsible for 30 percent of painkiller overdoses in the United States, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Methadone is responsible for 30 percent of painkiller overdoses in the United States, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The stat is alarming, the CDC said, because methadone makes up only 2 percent of painkiller prescriptions.

"Death from opioid overdose have increased four-fold in the past decade, and methadone now accounts for nearly a third of opioid-associated deaths," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in a statement.

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Methadone has typically been used to wean addicts off of heroin, but doctors have recently started prescribing it as a painkiller. However, between 1999 and 2000, methadone deaths increased steadily. Six times as many people died of methadone in 2009 than in 1999, according to the study.

"Methadone used for heroin substitution treatment does not appear to be a major part of this problem," Frieden said, according to Reuters. "However, the amount of methadone prescribed to people in pain has increased dramatically. There are many safer alternatives to methadone for chronic non-cancer pain."

Methadone is dangerous because it can build up in the body, and if taken more than three times a day can dangerously slow down breathing. Federal efforts to warn healthcare providers about methadone risks have done little, and in many cases, it was being dispensed by people without pain management training, according to the study.

The drug is attractive as a painkiller, experts say, because it is cheap -- less than a dollar per dose. However, Frieden told Reuters that there is a hidden cost to the drug.

"Using methadone for pain is penny wise and pound foolish, he said. "Although it may cost a couple of dollars less per pill, the result is many more emergency room visits, and a much higher societal cost in deaths, and addiction and other problems that can be avoided."

Frieden said doctors need to be better educated about which painkillers to prescribe and the risks that come with each one. He is also an advocate for statewide monitoring programs that would allow doctors to view a patient's drug history to avoid harmful interactions.

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