Prescription Narcotics Overdoses Kill More Than Heroin and Cocaine Combined

Prescription narcotics were involved in more accidental drug overdose deaths in 2007 than heroin and cocaine combined, according to a new article. And in some states, the number of deaths from prescription painkiller overdose is higher than suicide or car crashes.

Approximately 27,500 people died from unintentional prescription drug overdoses in 2007, driven to a large extent by prescription narcotics overdoses, said researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Narcotics pain medications were also involved in about 36 percent of all poisoning suicides in the U.S. in 2007.

That's nearly five times as many deaths from both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, from the beginning of both wars through Feb. 20, 2011, said study researcher Dr. Richard H. Weisler, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University.

Alternatively, the drug overdose deaths would be equivalent to losing an airplane carrying 150 passengers and crew every day for six months, researchers said.

The study findings come on the tail of another article published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which showed that the risk of fatal overdose increases with the dose of drugs taken (though taking the medications as needed or as prescribed was not associated with overdose risk).

In 2009, the CDC's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 1 in 5 high school students in the United States have abused prescription drugs, including the narcotics painkillers OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. Narcotics, also called opioids, are synthetic versions of opium that are used to treat moderate and severe pain.

And in June last year, the CDC reported that visits to hospital emergency departments involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers has more than doubled, rising 111 percent, between 2004 and 2008.

Researchers said one of the key reasons for the increase in prescription drug overdose deaths is increased nonmedical use of narcotics without a prescription because of the feeling it produces. They also said that medical providers, psychiatrists and primary care physicians may fail to anticipate the extent of overlap between chronic pain, mental illness and substance abuse among their patients.

For example, 15 percent to 30 percent of people with unipolar, bipolar, anxiety, psychotic, non-psychotic and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders will also have substance abuse problems, said study researcher Dr. Ashwin A. Patkar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

"Similarly, people with substance abuse are more likely to have another mental illness and a significant number of patients with chronic pain will have mental illness or substance abuse problems," Patkar said in a statement.

Moreover, narcotics, benzodiazepines, antidepressants and sleep aids are commonly prescribed even though they are harmful and addictive when abused, researchers said. It’s the combinations of these drugs that are frequently found in the toxicology reports of people dying of overdoses.

Researchers suggest that before prescribing narcotics, doctors should try non-narcotic medications as well as -- when possible -- physical therapy, psychotherapy, exercise and other nonmedicinal methods.

The study was published last week in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

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