The number of Americans who died of overdoses of the prescription drug methadone rose 213 percent in the four years between 1999 and 2002, according to a new analysis by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Methadone accounts for more than one-third of all deaths from opioid drugs, according to the report in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety.
The remaining two-thirds were divided among other opioid painkillers and synthetic narcotics, including codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, hydromorphone, fentanyl and meperidine.
Routine surveillance at the CDC showed a recent increase in deaths caused by these drugs, study co-author Leonard Paulozzi said in a telephone interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
�We decided to dig deeper into what was causing the increase,� he said.
Researchers found that opioid painkillers caused 91 percent more deaths in 2002 than four years before � far more than heroin or cocaine, according to death certificates.
At the same time, doctors were writing more prescriptions for opioid painkillers, and that �may have inadvertently contributed� to the deaths, the study found.
The rise in methadone deaths was more than double that of other opioids and synthetic narcotics.
A recent Sunday Gazette-Mail series revealed the same trend: Methadone was involved in the deaths of three times as many Americans in 2003 as in 1999, according to death certificates.
The Gazette-Mail also found that methadone sales have increased almost tenfold over the past decade.
Traditionally, methadone was used mostly to treat drug abusers, calming their cravings for heroin and other drugs.
Recently, doctors have been prescribing it more often to treat pain. It is cheap and effective, but it has unique pharmacologic properties that can be deadly.
The jump in methadone deaths rose along with prescriptions for methadone painkillers � not methadone from drug treatment clinics, the study found. It cited two other studies that found the same thing.