US figures show that drug overdose deaths have risen for the 11th straight year and most of these deaths were caused by prescription pain medications.
Nearly %60 of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in 2010 were caused by prescription medications. That is far higher than deaths caused by illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gathered and analysed the data said, "The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly."
According to the report the most abused drugs were Oxycontin and Vicodin, both of which are opioid painkiller brands popular in the United States.
This may be the result of a shift in how doctors treat pain. This shift meant medical professionals were encouraged to prescribe painkillers not just for post-operative or temporary pain but also for chronic pain. With more people taking prescription pain medications the number of addicts as well as the availability of the various painkillers has skyrocketed.
Because these drugs are prescribed by a doctor, many people see them as somehow safer or less addictive. This may have contributed to the dramatic number of prescription overdoses.
The toll taken by these painkillers is felt everywhere but those that bear the brunt are often poor or rural areas. While many people understand the dangers of drugs like heroin, painkillers are seen as a safe alternative. They are also often cheaper and easier to obtain than more traditional and illicit drugs.
In 2010 there were 22,134 prescription overdoses in the US alone. The number of drug overdose deaths has more than tripled since 1990 and there are more than 12 million people who have reported using prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons in 2010. This has led many experts to call for more regulation and tougher rules around prescribing painkillers. Hospitals are also cracking down on prescriptions and refills.
While this has helped it is also raising concern among legitimate pain patients that may soon have trouble refilling their own prescriptions. This puts both pain patients and lawmakers in a difficult position as they struggle to treat pain without enabling addicts.