Deaths from Rx Pain Meds Surpass Heroin, Cocaine Disturbing new research finds that unintentional overdose deaths in teens and adults have reached epidemic proportions.

Experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of North Carolina and Duke University Medical Center report that in 2007, unintentional deaths due to prescription opioid pain killers were involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.

In fact, in 20 states, the number of unintentional drug poisoning deaths exceeded either motor vehicle crashes or suicides. Opioid pain medications were also involved in about 36 percent of all poisoning suicides in the U.S. in 2007.

The new research report seeks to give physicians information so that safeguards and interventions can be put in place to reduce the problem.

According to the researchers, approximately 27,500 people died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2007, driven to a large extent by prescription opioid overdoses.

Dr. Richard H. Weisler, M.D., adjunct professor of psychiatry at UNC, says that to put this in perspective, the number of 2007 U.S. unintentional drug poisoning deaths alone is about 4.6 times as many deaths as all U.S. fatalities in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from the beginning of both wars through Feb 20, 2011.

The CDC sounded alarms regarding the issue in several reports last year. In June 2010, for example, the agency announced that the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that 1 in 5 high school students in the United States have abused prescription drugs, including the opioid painkillers OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.

Opioids are synthetic versions of opium that are used to treat moderate and severe pain.

Researchers believe there are several factors associated with the problem, including increased nonmedical use of opioids without a prescription solely for the feeling they create. The authors believe medical providers, psychiatrists and primary care physicians may fail to anticipate among their patients the extent of overlap between chronic pain, mental illness and substance abuse.

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.

“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,” experts said.

Unfortunately, opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and sleep aids “are frequently prescribed in combination despite their potentially harmful additive effects,” the authors point out.

And it’s the combinations of these drugs that are frequently found in the toxicology reports of people dying of overdoses.

In their recommendations to physicians, the authors suggest that before prescribing opioids, doctors should try non-narcotic medications as well as, when possible, physical therapy, psychotherapy, exercise, and other non-medicinal methods. These methods should be given “an adequate trial” before moving to opioids, they said.

“It is very important to screen patients with chronic pain who may require opioid therapy for substance abuse and mental health problems, especially depression and other mood and anxiety disorders, and address these problems adequately,” the authors state.

Source: University of North Carolina