Majority of ER Overdoses Caused By Prescription Painkillers

By Victoria Kim 11/06/14

Overdoses caused by prescription painkillers have skyrocketed in the past decade.

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Prescription painkillers account for 68% of overdoses treated in emergency rooms, according to a report published last week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study analyzed 2010 data from the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample and was adjusted to generate national estimates. Opioid drugs including forms of morphine, methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, prescribed by doctors were the cause of the estimated 92,200 hospital visits, which is more than five times the number of deaths involving opioid painkillers in 2010.

According to the study, about 16% of emergency room visits were heroin-related. Fewer than 2% of overdoses treated in emergency rooms were fatal, but in slightly more than half the cases, the victims had to be admitted to the hospital. The cost of care for overdose victims, whether they were released or admitted to the hospital, was an estimated $1.4 billion in 2010.

The study showed people with breathing, heart, and mental health problems were at higher risk for drug overdoses, which is why clinicians should prescribe opioid painkillers for someone with one of these conditions with care, according to Michael Yokell, a Stanford University medical student and one of the researchers. He also said clinicians should “think about alternatives” for such patients and discuss the risk of overdose.

Painkiller deaths quadrupled between 1999 and 2011—from 4,263 deaths to 17,000—in conjunction with the rising number of prescriptions for opioid medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the nation’s prescription drug problem had reached epidemic levels.

Doctors in the United States write more than 259 million prescriptions for painkillers annually, and the prescription drug epidemic has driven drug overdose to become the leading cause of injury death in the nation, causing more deaths than car accidents.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr