ED Visits Involving Prescription Painkillers Soaring

A SAMHSA/CDC study published in MMWR says emergency department visits tied to non-medical use of prescription pain relievers rose by 111 percent from 2004 to 2008.

Federal drug enforcement officials say abuse of prescription pain relievers has become the nation's fastest-growing drug problem, and the evidence is found in a new study indicating U.S. hospital emergency department (ED) visits involving non-medical use of the painkillers rose by 111 percent from 2004 to 2008, from 144,644 visits to 305,885 visits annually. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted the study, which was published June 18 in CDC's MMWR.

The study used data from SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network emergency department system. "The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation's fastest-growing drug problem. And this new study shows it is a problem that affects men and women, people under 21, and those over 21," said Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske. "The newly released National Drug Control Strategy contains specific steps that all of us can take to address this issue."

The three prescription opioid pain relievers most frequently involved in ED visits during the five-year period were:

  • Oxycodone products: Visits rose 152 percent to 105,214.
  • Hydrocodone products: Visits climbed 123 percent to 89,051.
  • Methadone products: Visits increased 73 percent to 63,629.

Visits involving non-medical use of other types of prescription pain relievers were lower but also increased sharply during the period. The authors pointed out that by 2008, peak visit rates for both types of pain relievers appeared to have shifted into the 21-24 and 25-29 age groups and away from the 30-34 and 35-44 age groups, and they also said the rapid increase in ED visit rates reflects, in part, substantial increases in the prescribing of these classes of drugs.

"These alarming findings provide one more example of how the misuse of prescription pain relievers is impacting lives and our health care system," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde. "This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs."

The full report is available here.

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