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Prescription Drug Abuse Sending More to Hospitals

Overdoses of painkillers and sedatives up 65 percent in U.S., study finds

TUESDAY, April 6 (HealthDay News) -- Hospitalizations caused by accidental and intentional abuse of prescription sedatives, tranquilizers and other painkilling drugs has risen dramatically over the last decade, new research reveals.

Hospital stays from an unintentional overdose of opioids (such as Vicodin and Percocet) and sedatives (such as Valium and Ativan) jumped 37 percent between 1999 and 2006, the study found. Intentional overdoses of these drugs skyrocketed by 130 percent in that time.

"We're seeing a tremendous increase in serious overdoses associated with the use of prescription drugs," said the study's lead author, Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben, director of the Injury Control Research Center at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and a professor of emergency and community medicine.

"And while I know that people have seen headlines on Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, this is not a problem just contained to celebrities," Coben stressed. "This is a problem that is dramatically on the rise throughout the country, and it's very important that people understand that prescription drugs are very powerful, potentially life-threatening and need to be used as prescribed and with caution."

In the United States, in fact, poisoning -- which includes overdoses -- now ranks as the second-leading cause of death from unintentional injury, according to the study.

The study, reported in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, presents a snapshot of prescription drug abuse drawn from a database that tracks hospitalizations nationwide.

The researchers found that hospitalizations that resulted from prescription opioid, sedative and tranquilizer use had increased 65 percent during the seven-year study period when accidental and intentional use were included.

The study authors also found that hospitalizations resulting from unintentional overdoses of these drugs increased 37 percent, compared with a 21 percent increase in hospitalizations attributed to poisoning from other drugs and substances, including so-called street drugs such as heroin, over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol and other prescription drugs.

Hospitalizations from all other causes increased just 11 percent, the study found.

There was a 130 percent rise in suicide-related overdoses of these drugs compared with a 53 percent increase in intentional overdoses of all other substances, according to the researchers.

The hospital data, however, did not show an increase in poisonings from all prescription drugs. Methadone use accounted for the largest relative leap in hospitalizations, being up 400 percent, but hospitalizations that resulted from barbiturate and antidepressant use dropped by 41 percent and 13 percent, respectively -- trends that Coben said could be the result of changes in prescribing patterns.

In light of the findings, Coben highlighted steps that could be taken to try to reduce the chances of prescription drug overdoses.

"There's pretty good consensus around certain measures. We do need to work with physicians and pharmacists to make sure there are better procedures in place to monitor who's getting what and how frequently," he said.

"There's also a need to educate people better about the dangers associated with these meds and about how to use them and not to use them, and what to do when you're finished using them," Coben added. "And finally, there's a role for the legal system in going after rogue pharmacies and Internet distribution of these medications. So I'm advocating a multi-factorial approach."

Michael Von Korff, a senior investigator with Group Health Research Institute, part of the Seattle-based health-care system, described the study's findings as consistent with other recent research.

"Our own work suggests that 3 to 4 percent of American adults -- not just people with chronic pain -- are now using opioids," Von Korff said. "This is the treatment that 8 to 10 million Americans are using now, which means that many more people have these drugs in their medicine cabinets now and are using them. And when you increase exposure, there's going to be increases in adverse events," he added.

"As a result, the number of emergency room visits is increasing rapidly, and the number of fatal overdoses is increasing rapidly and the number of high school students using opioids for non-medicinal purposes is increasing rapidly," Von Korff said. "So I'd say that this finding is sobering, but not surprising."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on medication safety and abuse.

SOURCES: Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D., director, Injury Control Research Center, and professor, departments of emergency medicine and community medicine, West Virginia University School of Medicine, Morgantown, W.Va.; Michael Von Korff, Sc.D., senior investigator, Group Health Research Institute, Seattle; May 2010, American Journal of Preventive Medicine

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