Recent issue of ‘JAMA,’ the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association,’ says abuse and deadly overdoses attributed to prescription painkillers is on the rise, with rural America leading the way.  The study behind this alarming finding focused on West Virginia, where the number of painkiller overdoses rose 550% between 1999 and 2004.

Perhaps even more alarming is that two-thirds of the West Virginians dying from painkiller overdoses didn’t even have a prescription for the drugs.  Prescription painkillers are often of the narcotic class of drugs, which can only be dispensed under very controlled circumstances and require strict monitoring by prescribing physicians.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says accidental death by a handful of opioid painkillers – fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycondone – rose 91% from 1999 to 2002, a rate the CDC says is in keeping with the increased rate of sales for these same drugs.

The CDC’s Aron Hall, one of the authors of the study, refers to the situation as an epidemic, hitting rural America especially hard.  He also says the use and abuse of narcotic painkillers has dramatically increased in the past 10 to 15 years.

By examining the circumstances surrounding these accidental overdose deaths, the research team hoped to shed light on the problem in such a way that public health officials can gain a better understanding of the situation.  Their examination of cause of death, as listed on death certificates, indicated 295 such deaths in 2006 in West Virginia.  Of them, 63% involved people dying from prescription drugs that were not prescribed for them and 21% from people getting prescription drugs from five or more doctors, a practice known as doctor shopping.  Doctor shopping allows a consumer to obtain more prescription drugs than one doctor would or, in the case of narcotics, could prescribe.

Methadone was once used almost entirely to treat heroin addiction but is being used more often in recent years to treat chronic pain.  Of the 295 West Virginia deaths in 2006, 40% of them involved methadone.

Leonard Paulozzi, MD, MPH, at the CDC, says taking these drugs as prescribed is safe but, when used non-medically (any way other than as prescribed), they can be quite dangerous.  He says they are not safe when used for recreational purposes.