Methadone Linked To Increase In Painkiller Deaths
July 4, 2012

Methadone Linked To Increase In Painkiller Deaths

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that the prescription drug methadone accounted for over 30 percent of prescription painkiller overdose deaths, even though there were only two percent of painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. in 2009.

The findings were published in a recent CDC Vital Signs report. Researchers examined national data from 1999 to 2010, with the 2009 data pooled from 13 states. The investigators stated that methadone has more risks than other painkillers as it causes buildup in the body and can change an individual´s breathing or heart rhythm. In particular, four of every 10 overdose deaths from a prescription painkiller were related to methadone. According to the report, this is double the amount of any other prescription painkiller.

"Methadone is riskier than other prescription painkillers ... and we don't think it has a role in the treatment of acute pain," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a conference call with reporters.

According to MSNBC, in the past, methadone has been used to treat drug addiction such as heroin. Recently, it has been used more and more as a pain reliever. The CDC researchers found that there was a clear correlation between the increasing amounts of methadone prescriptions for pain along with the number of fatal overdoses associated with methadone non-medical use. According to the CDC, in 2009, six times as many people died from methadone overdoses as compared to deaths caused by methadone in 1999. Many of the accidental deaths have been related to drug´s use in alleviating chronic pain.

“Deaths from opioid overdose have increased four-fold in the past decade, and methadone now accounts for nearly a third of opioid-associated deaths,” commented Frieden in a prepared statement. “Methadone used for heroin substitution treatment does not appear to be a major part of this problem.  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.”

Even though there has been an increased effort by the federal government to warn health care providers about the dangers of methadone, there has not been a significant decline in the number of methadone prescriptions. A majority of the prescriptions are given by physicians who normally do not have special training in pain management. The CDC believes that health care providers need to take extra steps in helping to prevent prescription painkiller overdoses.

“Methadone continues to play an important role in substance abuse treatment and should not be limited in its use for that application,” remarked Linda C. Degutis, director of CDC“²s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, in the statement. “Health care providers can take precautions to reduce the risks of methadone overdose when used for treating pain.”

Besides the focus on methadone, the federal government has taken other steps to stop the abuse of the use of prescription drugs. In October 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that would make it simpler for communities to correctly dispose of prescription drugs. As well, 49 states have passed legislation that focuses on the implementation of databases that would make it more difficult to participate in “doctor shopping.” Furthermore, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has held a number of national take back days that have highlighted the importance of turning in expired, extra, or unneeded prescription drugs. Frieden believes that the work by the Food and Drug Administration and the DEA has helped influence awareness on methadone overdoses and death, with a slight decrease of methadone scripts in 2009.

"I think this shows that it's possible to make further decreases in the number of people who overdose or die from methadone," Frieden told Medpage Today.