The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned the popular prescription painkiller propoxyphene, which includes brands such as Darvon and Darvocet, after studies showed the central nervous system depressant increased users’ risk of life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities.
Abnormal heart rhythms are different from heart attacks, where blood flow to part of the heart may be slowed or stopped. These abnormalities may cause cardiac arrest, which is sometimes called sudden cardiac death. During such an event, the heart stops beating and the victim may die within minutes. Other problems associated with abnormal heart rhythms include arrhythmia, which is any abnormal heart rhythm; tachycardia, when the heart races faster than 100 beats per minute; and bradycardia, when the heart rate drops under 60 beats per minute.
Another danger with propoxyphene-containing drugs is respiratory arrest. This generally occurs when there is either an accidental or intentional overdose of the drug. Propoxyphene has long been criticized because it can easily be overdosed by patients who are unaware that mixing it with other medications or alcohol can increase its depressant effects.
Because propoxyphene had been on the market for more than 50 years before it was banned, it had become one of the most prescribed painkillers in the country. It was often prescribed for the elderly, yet the drug can be even more dangerous to geriatric users. For example, propoxyphene may cause hip fractures. Elderly propoxyphene users are 60 percent more likely to experience a hip fracture while taking the drug than younger users.