Pharmaceutical

Rx drug overdose second leading cause of accidental death

For Alexandra Rain, pain is constant. The 53-year-old woman’s spine and legs were crushed in an automobile accident nearly 35 years ago, and she needs strong prescription painkillers just to make it through the day. Yet the drugs meant to improve her quality of life have left her on the verge of overdose on more than one occasion.

“You lose track of what you’re taking because a lot of the time I was advised to ‘take as needed,’” Rain told ABC News. On several occasions she inadvertently OD’d and on one occasion stopped breathing altogether.

Rain is not alone. A new study published this week has found that people on high or maximum does of prescription opioid painkillers are at a significantly increased risk of accidental and fatal overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites prescription painkillers and sedatives as a major medical issue, adding that the rate of overdose deaths from these drugs has increased a monumental 124 percent.

Between 2004 and 2008, emergency room visits from prescription drug overdoses more than doubled, and overdoses among persons ages 45 to 54 are now the second leading cause of accidental death. The CDC estimates that there are 13,000 deaths each year associated with unintentional overdoses involving opioids.

Opioids are chemicals that give an analgesic effect and decrease the perception of pain as well as increase pain tolerance. They are among the oldest known drugs, and are often misused for their dreamlike effect. Several opioids are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of pain, but studies are beginning to raise questions about the safety of such drugs.

Late last year, the FDA banned all drugs containing the opioid propoxyphene, commonly known by the brand names Darvocet and Darvon, because studies showed the drugs put users at an increased risk for dangerous abnormal heart rhythm abnormalities. However, years before the drug was pulled in the United States, citizen groups were already petitioning the FDA to investigate the safety of the drug, citing mounting cases of unintentional drug overdoses.

The FDA eventually looked into the issue but at that time chose to put stricter warnings on the drug’s label in lieu of banning it. Critics say hundreds of thousands of deaths may have been avoided had the FDA acted sooner and pulled the drug when the first red flags were raised. Now, sources say lawsuits against makers of propoxyphene-containing drugs could be one of the largest in history.