New Study Blames Prescription Drugs for Bulk of Fatal Overdoses

A whopping 93 percent of overdose deaths in West Virginia are blamed on abuse of prescription opiates.

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Research published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms the growing threat posed by abuse of prescription opiates and calls on clinicians to help prevent future cases of addiction and overdose.

The study, authored by Aron Hall, finds that a majority of drug overdose deaths in West Virginia in 2006 are linked to nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals, primarily prescription opiates like OxyContin, methadone, and Vicodin. Prescription opiates played a part in 93 percent of the 295 deaths examined. The study also found that men ages 18 to 24 were the most likely to obtain pills from friends or relatives.

Along with the high rate of overdoses, abuse of prescription opiates has become a serious concern because it often leads to heroin abuse among teens and 20-somethings, in large part because heroin is so much cheaper.

Hall chose West Virginia for the study because it has one of the highest rates of unintentional drug overdose deaths in the country—and the nation's fastest rising overdose rate. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of overdoses in West Virginia jumped by a dramatic 550 percent, and state records indicate that this trend has continued since 2004, according to the study.

Though the study did not track where those who overdosed obtained their drugs, it does conclude that a majority of individuals using prescription pain relievers to get high procure their drugs for free from friends or relatives. According to the study, pain medication is being prescribed at staggering rates nationwide. Legal purchases of methadone have increased 13-fold in the past decade, while OxyContin prescriptions are up nine-fold.

Because the root of this problem lies in the growing number of pain medication prescriptions written by doctors and filled by pharmacists each day, Hall encourages these professionals to counsel patients who are prescribed opiates about the risk of overdose—both to themselves and to those with whom they share or sell their pills. He also recommends that clinicians not hesitate to refer patients to pain management specialists who can help them identify levels of pain medication that provide relief without being addictive.