The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

CDC study: Methadone overdose deaths fell; some rare good news regarding painkiller trend

  • Print

ATLANTA - Overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have been surging at an alarming rate in the U.S., but here's a sliver of good news: The number blamed on methadone appears to have peaked.

Still, methadone accounts for nearly one-third of prescription painkiller deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

Methadone, known mainly for treating heroin addiction, is also prescribed for pain. Health officials say most of the overdose deaths are people who take it for pain — not heroin or drug addicts.

After a sharp rise, the number and rate of methadone-related overdose deaths have fallen since 2007, the CDC report shows.

Health officials describe the recent trend as closer to a levelling off than a reversal. But they also acknowledged it is a bit of good news in what has been a deteriorating situation.

"There aren't a lot of problems that have gotten so much worse so quickly as prescription drug overdose has," said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Overall, overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have increased by about four times over a decade, he said. Besides methadone, painkiller deaths primarily involve Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone) and Opana (oxymorphone).

Methadone is powerful drug that can be underestimated. It accounted for just 2 per cent of painkiller prescriptions in 2009, but more than 30 per cent of overdose deaths, according to the CDC.

The drug mimics the effects of heroin and has been used to wean heroin users off of their addiction. Regular doses of methadone can reduce heroin cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Roughly 15 years ago, doctors started prescribing methadone more often for pain, partly because they were looking for an alternative to OxyContin, a narcotic pain reliever that increasingly was being tied to drug abuse and death. Methadone seemed like a safer alternative, said Dr. Len Paulozzi, the CDC study's lead author.

Insurers also encouraged doctors to prescribe methadone because it's cheaper than some other painkillers.

But too much methadone can disrupt breathing, causing death. It also can cause a fatal irregular heartbeat, CDC officials say.

The CDC researchers analyzed a decade of national prescription data, as well as drug-related death data from 13 states. The number of methadone-related deaths rose from fewer than 800 in 1999 to more than 5,500 in 2007, before slipping the next two years to 4,900 and 4,700.

What's behind the change? The researchers note that the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 warned doctors to be more careful in prescribing the drug. And in 2008, methadone manufacturers voluntarily limited distribution of the largest doses of the drug to only hospitals and to addiction treatment programs.

Meanwhile, more states started or toughened up programs to monitor prescriptions for painkillers and look for signs of abuse.

This all boiled down to more education of doctors about the dangers of prescribing methadone, said Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

"The word got out," said Goldberger, who has been studying methadone overdose deaths for about a decade.

Doctors may be swinging back to prescribing oxycodone and hydrocodone, he said.

Despite all the warnings, the CDC researchers say too many prescriptions are still being written for pain, many by internists and family doctors, not pain specialists. And many of the prescriptions are for back pain and other conditions that methadone might not help in the long run, CDC officials said.



CDC report:

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets vs. Ducks Series promo

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A Canada goose flies towards the sun near the Perimeter Highway North and Main St Monday afternoon – See Day 10 for Bryksa’s 30 goose project - May 11, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Gardening Column- Assiniboine Park English Garden. July 19, 2002.

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google