Pain Killer Overdoses: A Public Epidemic in the U.S.
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Pain Killer Overdoses: A Public Epidemic in the U.S.

deaths from the abuse of prescription pain killers has become an epidemic in the United States. More people die every year drom non-medical use use of opioid than from heroin and cocaine abuse combined.

Every year, approximately 15,000 people die from overdoses of prescription painkillers in the United States. More people die from overdoses of prescription painkillers than die from Heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. Deaths resulting from prescription painkillers have tripled in over the last ten years. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 20 people, 12 years of age and older, misuse drugs like hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone for nonmedical reasons. They use them just to get high.

A Public Health Epidemic

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told an audience, "The unfortunate and shocking news is that we are in the midst of an epidemic of prescription overdose in this country."

  • Between 1999 and 2008, the deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses more than tripled from 4,000 in 1999 to approximately 15,000 people in 2008.
  • Last year, nearly 12 million Americans, 12 years of age and older reported using prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons over the past year.
  • Roughly 500 thousand ER visits during 1999 were the result of prescription painkiller abuse.
  • Every year the nonmedical use of prescription painkillers cost medical insurers as much as $72.5 billion.

Who are most at risk of succumbing to an overdose?

More men than women die from abusing prescription painkillers. Those living in rural America are almost twice as likely to overdose on prescription opioid pain killers as those living in an urban environment. Middle-aged men have the highest death rate for opioid overdoses.

By ethnic groups

  • One in 10 American Indians and Alaskan natives abuse opioids
  • One in 20 Caucasians abuse opioid painkillers, while only
  • One in 30Blacks abuse opioid painkillers according to the CDC report.

Where does the fault lie?

Most of the blame for this epidemic lie with how a few irresponsible doctors prescribe opioid painkillers. According to Doctor Frieden, "Enough narcotics are prescribed to give every adult in America one month of prescription narcotics. This stems from a few irresponsible doctors. The burden of dangerous drugs is being created more by a few irresponsible doctors than by drug pushers on street corners."

What is the solution to this epidemic?

Doctor Frieden writes in the CDC report that we need tighter state controls over prescription opioids and how they are prescribed. He put it this way, “State policy can make a huge difference in allowing or controlling this epidemic…."

Tighter control of prescription opioids is needed. Dr. Jeffrey N. Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center at the University of Miami, said that "It's a lot easier to go to a doctor and get a prescription, or to buy somebody's prescription, or to steal it out of somebody's medicine cabinet then it is to go to one of the bad neighborhoods and take a chance with a dealer where you are somewhat risking your own life."

States can:

  • Start or improve prescription-drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which are electronic databases that track all prescriptions for painkillers in the state.
  • Use PDMP, Medicaid, and workers' compensation data to identify improper prescribing of painkillers.
  • Set up programs for Medicaid, workers' compensation programs, and state-run health plans that identify and address improper patient use of painkillers.
  • Pass, enforce and evaluate pill mill, doctor shopping and other laws to reduce prescription painkiller abuse.
  • Encourage professional licensing boards to take action against inappropriate prescribing.
  • Increase access to substance abuse treatment.


Jeffrey N. Bernstein, M.D., medical director, Florida Poison Information Center, University of Miami; Nov. 1, 2011, teleconference with': Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Nov. 1, 2011, CDC, Vital Sign Report: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the U.S.

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Comments (11)
Ranked #28 in Addictions

I had surgery earlier this year and my surgeon prescribed oxycodone. I took it twice and thought I was going to die. I woke up in the night not breathing - a side effect that is seldom mentioned. Acetaminophen relieved the pain just as well. I think most doctors hand these prescriptions out without even thinking and people take them the same way.

Pat, I had the same issues with oxycodone, and when it was prescribed for my 15 year old daughter I went ballistic on the doctor.

Ranked #28 in Addictions

Francina, maybe we should go ballistic on doctors a little more often. It's more than just irresponsible to prescribe dangerous drugs.

I agree, my daughter being 15, wanted to speak with her doctor alone, exercising her right to privacy, the doctor gave her the prescription without talking with me about it, and when I asked her why, the doctor told me that she could not talk to me about her patient without permission,a that is when I got ballistic. Of course my daughter came to me and asked what the drugs were, and I told her to research it on the internet. Now she has noted in her medical records that any and all doctors will talk to me before talking to her, and they need my permission to prescribed medications to her...Smart girl

Ranked #28 in Addictions

Sounds like you're raising her right. These new laws about children and their health infuriate me.

Parents have to continually be a part of everything in a child's life otherwise the unknown can occur. Well done information about a valuable subject.

Great discussion on this prolific article.

These are scary facts.

Very interesting topic, Jerry.

Excellent work, Jerry. I am never surprised at you ingenious work.

After being a recent caregiver, I can see how seniors can overdose. They forget what day it is and take the wrong day in their pill box, then later they look at the pill box and remember what day it is and get frantic because they forget to take that day's pills. It's all very confusing to them.