Abuse of Prescription Painkillers Soars

Abuse of  prescription pain relievers is soaring in the United States, according to what health officials call "alarming findings" in a new report.

Visits to hospital emergency departments involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation's fastest-growing drug problem. And this new study shows it is a problem that affects men and women, people under 21, and those over 21," said Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske.

Three prescription opioid pain relievers were most frequently involved in hospital emergency department visits related to nonmedical use from 2004 to 2008:

  • Oxycodone products: Up 152 percent (well more than doubling), to 105,214.

  • Hydrocodone products: Up 123 percent, to 89,051.

  • Methadone products: Up 73 percent, to 63,629.

"These alarming findings provide one more example of how the misuse of prescription pain relievers is impacting lives and our health care system," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. "This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs."

The trends reflect in part dramatic increases in the rate at which these drugs are prescribed in the United States, according to a CDC statement. And this is not the first study to reveal the trend.

A separate study found abuse of certain prescription drugs nearly doubled from 2000 to 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Some health officials are calling the rise in the misuse of prescription drugs  an epidemic. 

"We urgently need to take action," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said this week. "Emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of these prescription drugs are now as common as emergency department visits for use of illicit drugs. These prescription medicines help many people, but we need to be sure they are used properly and safely."