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Methadone Riskier Than Thought

Study says use of drug for those addicted to popular painkiller may have backfired

THURSDAY, Oct. 17, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Efforts to prevent abuse of the painkiller oxycodone by prescribing methadone as an alternative may be backfiring.

That's the claim of University of Florida (UF) researchers, who say they've found an alarming increase in the number of methadone-related deaths in Florida. They add that the trend in the state appears to mirror a problem across the United States.

The narcotic painkiller oxycodone has been popular in the illegal drug trade since the late 1990s. To combat that abuse, doctors now commonly prescribe methadone as an alternative for patients with chronic pain. Methadone is an opiate used to help recovering heroin addicts avoid withdrawal symptoms.

"In Florida, we had a 71 percent increase in methadone-related deaths from 2000 to 2001 -- now methadone is associated with more deaths than heroin," says Bruce Goldberger, a UF forensic toxicologist.

Goldberger and his colleagues examined Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics. They found that methadone was detected in 357 autopsies done in Florida in 2001, compared to 328 autopsies involving heroin.

Across the United States, methadone-related emergency room visits climbed from 5,426 in 1999 to 10,725 in 2001, says the Drug Abuse Warning Network, a federal data collection system.

Some of the methadone deaths are the result of accidental or deliberate overdoses by people with legitimate prescriptions, Goldberger says. But other deaths occur when people use methadone as a recreational drug.

Those people often get multiple methadone prescriptions by going "doctor shopping," he says.

Methadone is a synthetic opiate introduced into the United States in 1947 as a painkiller. In recent decades, it's primarily been used to treat people with heroin addiction.

More information

For more about causes and treatment of chronic pain, go to the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCE: University of Florida, news release, October 2002
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