Rate of fatal overdoses involving pain medications slows, CDC says

A new study finds that deaths related to prescription painkillers increased every year for more than a decade.
(Lawrence K. Ho)

Fatal overdoses involving prescription painkillers have increased every year for more than a decade, but a government study has found for the first time that the rate is slowing.

Before 2006, the age-adjusted rate of painkiller-involved deaths grew by 18% per year, according to a report issued Tuesday by the National Center for Health Statistics. Since then, however, the death rate increased by 3% per year, the study found.




12:29 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said that deaths involving the prescription pain medications OxyContin and Vicodin climbed sharply through 2011. The steady and steep climb was seen for the category of drugs called natural and semisynthetic opioid analgesics, which includes oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine medications.


But the encouraging trend was not uniform. The number of deaths involving the category of drugs that includes OxyContin, Vicodin and other widely prescribed opioid painkillers continued their steady and steep climb through 2011, the last year included in the analysis.

The slowdown was driven largely by a decrease in overdoses involving methadone, the study said. Methadone is an opioid that is both prescribed by doctors for pain relief and dispensed at clinics to help recovering addicts stay off heroin and other narcotics.

Over the 12-year period from 1999 to 2011, the age-adjusted rate of painkiller deaths nearly quadrupled, reaching 5.4 per 100,000, according to the report. That translated to 16,917 deaths in 2011.

The greatest increases occurred among people aged 55 to 64 and non-Latino whites.

The study also highlighted the growing role of anti-anxiety drugs, known as benzodiazepines. Xanax, Valium and other benzodiazepines were involved in 31% of the painkiller deaths, up from 13% in 1999.

The National Center for Health Statistics is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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