Methadone is not a commonly used painkiller – it was prescribed for only 2% of painkiller needs in the United States during 2009. However, the monthly Vital Signs Report from Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was issued today, showed methadone as being indicated in nearly one third of all prescription painkiller overdose deaths.

Methadone is an opiate based drug that is more frequently used to treat heroin addiction than it is for a pain killer.Other opiate based products such as Oxycodone and Morphine are more commonly prescribed for pain. The problem with Methadone, specifically, is that is builds up in the body, which is why it’s better for treating addictions, but this build up, like any opiate, can disrupt breathing and heart rhythm. It has become more popular in recent years as a pain killer, because it’s considered the less addictive of the opiates.

National data was analyzed from 1999 to 2010, including data from 13 states for 2009 who are involved in the Drug Abuse Warning Network of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and pegged four out of ten of every overdose death from a single painkiller prescription as having involved methadone. This is twice the number of any other painkiller.

As prescriptions for methadone as a painkiller have increased, so too has recreational use and overdoses. Six times as many people died from methadone overdoses in 2009 than in 1999. As CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD. M.P.H put it:

“Deaths from opioid overdose have increased four-fold in the past decade, and methadone now accounts for nearly a third of opioid-associated deaths … Methadone used for heroin substitution treatment does not appear to be a major part of this problem. However, the amount of methadone prescribed to people in pain has increased dramatically. There are many safer alternatives to methadone for chronic non-cancer pain.”

Linda C. Degutis, Dr.P.H., M.S.N., director of CDC′s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control continued that:

“Methadone continues to play an important role in substance abuse treatment and should not be limited in its use for that application … Health care providers can take precautions to reduce the risks of methadone overdose when used for treating pain.”

CDC recommends that health care providers take additional measures to prevent prescription painkiller overdoses, providing a list of key steps, especially following prescription guidelines correctly:

  • Screening and monitoring for substance abuse and other mental health problems.
  • Prescribing only the quantity needed based on the expected length of pain.
  • Using patient-provider agreements combined with urine drug tests for people taking methadone long term.
  • Using prescription drug monitoring programs to identify patients who are abusing methadone or other prescription painkillers.
  • Educating patients on how to safely use, store, and dispose of prescription painkillers and how to prevent and recognize overdoses.

The Federal Government in the United States is also taking action in the form of a new bill signed by President Obama in Oct. 2010. The idea is to make it easier for local authorities to dispose of prescription drugs. Through the program, some 500 tons of excess pharmaceuticals that are either unneeded or expired have been handed in to the DEA during national take back days. The DEA has also mounted extensive operations in Florida to crack down on pill mills. In addition 49 states have passed their won legislation against doctor shopping, where patients hop from one doctor to the next gathering prescription drugs.

Written by Rupert Shepherd