Methadone Blamed for 1 in 3 Painkiller Overdose Deaths

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The painkiller methadone accounts for nearly one-third of all prescription painkiller overdose deaths in the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2009, methadone was involved in 31.4 percent of the nearly 3,300 U.S. deaths involving opioid painkillers, the report said. The drug accounts for this portion of painkiller-related deaths despite making up just 2 percent of all pain reliever prescriptions.

The rate of overdose deaths from methadone has been on the rise, increasing by more than 5 times between 1999 and 2009. This increase in fatal overdoses has occurred along with an increase in methadone prescriptions for pain, the CDC said. The majority of deaths are unintentional.

The drug has been used since the 1960s to treat heroine addiction, but became increasingly prescribed as a painkiller in the 1990s, the CDC said.

To help curb overdose deaths, doctors should be selective about when they prescribe methadone for pain, and the drug should not be the first-choice treatment for non-cancer pain, the report said. There's evidence that doctors are prescribing the drug inappropriately, for conditions that have not been shown to benefit from methadone treatment, such as back pain and headaches, the report said. Most doctors who prescribe it do not have special training in pain management, the CDC said.

"There's really been an overuse of methadone for pain," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said today (July 3) at a news conference about the report. There are many safe alternatives to the drug, Frieden said.

Methadone is a long-acting pain drug that is available at a relatively low cost, compared with other prescription pain medications. However, the drug carries extra risks because it can build up in the body and disrupt a person's heart rhythm, the CDC said.

The difference between prescription doses and dangerous doses of the drug is small, the agency said.

For their report, CDC researchers analyzed national rates of fatal methadone overdoses between 1999 and 2010, and also data on all opioid-related deaths in 2009 available from 13 states.

More effective use of prescription drug-monitoring programs, which are databases that allow doctors to record and track patients' prescriptions, will also be an important element in addressing the nation's prescription drug abuse problem, the CDC said.

The report was published today (July 3) in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Pass it on: More needs to be done to reduce overdoses deaths from methadone.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.