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Pain Management Health Center

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CDC: Alarming Increase in Methadone Deaths

Deaths From Opioid Painkillers Have Tripled Since 1999
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 30, 2009 -- Methadone deaths have risen sevenfold in less than a decade, according to a government report that largely blames the increase on the growing use of methadone for pain relief.

Used primarily for the management of heroin addiction until the late 1990s, methadone has become one of the most widely prescribed opioid painkillers, with 4 million prescriptions written for pain relief in 2006 alone.

It has also become one of the most deadly drugs around, the report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) confirms.

The report highlights the rising death rate associated with the use of opioid painkillers such as methadone, morphine, OxyContin, Dilaudid, and Vicodin.

Between 1999 and 2006, according to the report:

  • Deaths from the use of opioid pain relievers more than tripled in the U.S., from 4,000 in 1999 to 13,800 in 2006.
  • 40% of all poisoning deaths in 2006 in the U.S. involved opioid painkillers.
  • The number of poisoning deaths involving methadone increased from 790 to 5,420 during this period.
  • The opioid death rate was highest for whites, males, and people between the ages of 35 and 54.

The Problem With Methadone

The increase in methadone deaths corresponds to the drug’s increased use for pain relief, which began abruptly in 1999, says Nicholas Reuter, a public health analyst who has been tracking methadone use and deaths for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Increased concerns about the abuse potential of the pain reliever OxyContin and the desire for a relatively inexpensive long-acting opioid painkiller led to the shift in methadone use.

Last year, 750,000 methadone prescriptions were written for pain relief, but only 250,000 people were treated with the drug for addiction to heroin and other opioids, Reuter tells WebMD.

Methadone can suppress drug withdrawal symptoms as an addiction treatment for 24 hours; the drug’s ability to suppress pain lasts just four to eight hours.

But methadone stays in the system as long as 59 hours. Patients may feel they need more pain relief before the drug is cleared from the body, and if taken too often or at doses that are too high, toxic levels can build up, which can lead to life-threatening changes in breathing and heart function.

”Many of the methadone deaths I hear about involve people who just go to sleep at night and never wake up,” Reuter says.

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