For the 11th consecutive year, drug overdose deaths continued to rise in the United States, with opioid painkillers the leading cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Researchers say 38,329 people died from drug overdoses in 2010.
A CDC analysis of death certificates found that 16,651 of the overdoses involved prescription opioids, up from 15,597 in 2009 and nearly four times the number in 1999, when about 4,000 deaths involved narcotic painkillers.
The growing number of deaths is likely to fuel demands for further restrictions on opioid painkillers, although more people in the U.S. die each year from traffic accidents and gun violence.
Opioids analgesics such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone were involved in about three of every four fatal overdoses involving pharmaceuticals. But researchers also found they were often taken in combination with other drugs used to treat depression, mental illness and other disorders.
“This analysis confirms the predominant role opioid analgesics play in pharmaceutical overdose deaths,” reported Leonard Paulozzi, MD, of the CDC in a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“It also, however, highlights the frequent involvement of drugs typically prescribed for mental health conditions such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and anti-psychotics in overdose deaths. People with mental health disorders are at increased risk for heavy therapeutic use, non-medical use, and overdose of opioids.”
Paulozzi and his colleagues said anti-depressants were involved in over 13% of the prescription opioid deaths, followed by anti-epileptic and anti-Parkinson’s drugs at nearly 7%, and anti-psychotics and neuroleptics at about 5%.
“Patients with mental health or substance use disorders are at increased risk for non-medical use and overdose from prescription painkillers as well as being prescribed high doses of these drugs,” said Tom Frieden, MD, CDC Director. “Appropriate screening, identification, and clinical management by health care providers are essential parts of both behavioral health and chronic pain management.”
The CDC researchers called for greater use of tools such as prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to identify patients at risk of abusing or misusing opioids.