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Study: One-third of painkiller overdoses in the U.S. are from methadone

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A recently released CDC study indicates that a third of U.S. prescription painkiller overdoses are caused by methadone, despite the drug only accounting for two percent of all painkiller prescriptions. The prevalence of methadone overdoses appears to be linked to medical negligence, as physicians often inappropriately prescribe methadone for patients to use on a long-term basis to treat chronic pain.

When taken too often, levels of methadone can build up in the body and lead a patient to experience fatal breathing and heart problems.

“Deaths from opioid overdose have increased four-fold in the past decade, and methadone now accounts for nearly a third of opioid-associated deaths,” a CDC director said. “There are many safer alternatives to methadone for chronic non-cancer pain.”

Methadone is commonly thought of as a drug used to treat heroin addiction, but it turns out that the majority of overdose cases do not involve recovering drug addicts. It is much more common for a person with chronic pain to overdose on methadone because they were given improper or inadequate instructions from a physician who is unskilled in pain management, the CDC said.

“For chronic noncancer pain, methadone should not be considered a drug of first choice,” the CDC said in its latest Vital Signs report. “This is especially true for conditions for which the benefits of opioids have not been demonstrated, such as headache and low back pain.”

Source: CBS News, “Methadone to blame for one-third of U.S. prescription painkiller deaths, CDC says,” Ryan Jaslow, July 4, 2012