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Hospitalizations for Poisoning by Prescription Opioids, Sedatives, and Tranquilizers


A recent study by Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben in the Journal of Preventive Medicine tracked the increase of hospitalizations for prescription opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers from the period of 1999 to 2006—collecting data from the US Nationwide Inpatient Sample database, which contains records for approximately 8 million Americans hospitalized annually. Some of the startling revelations from the seven-year study period includes:

  • Rising hospitalizations for opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizer overdose from 43,000 in 1999 to 71,000 in 2006 (a 65% increase in hospitalizations, dwarfing all other hospitalizations for prescription-drug overdose)
  • Accidental poisoning by opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers rising by 37 percent—16 percent higher than other prescriptions drugs during this period
  • Accidental overdose of prescription drugs surpassing motor vehicle accidents as the number one cause of unintentional injury death among 35 to 54-year-olds
  • Intentional overdoses, in cases of suicide (or self-poisoning) or poisoning by someone else, more than doubling from 10,000 in 1999 to nearly 24,000 in 2006, compared with a 54 percent increase for all other prescription drugs during the same period

Prescription Drug Overdose: Not Just a Celebrity Phenomenon

What was once portrayed as a celebrity affliction has come full-circle from Hollywood to Main Street, broadly sweeping as an epidemic across this nation. When we think of prescription-drug overdose, images of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, or Heath Ledger may come to mind. Sadly, the easy attainability of these drugs coupled with an attitude that they are safer and less addictive than street drugs has laid the foundation for abuse, especially among adolescents and middle-aged women. In fact, the easy accessibility to prescription drugs has led to these drugs gaining favor among adolescents, age 12 to 17, now equaling that of marijuana use among this group—with over 2 million adolescent users of prescription drug tranquilizers alone!

Prescription-drug abuse aside, there is particular risk for those simply taking drugs as prescribed by medical physicians. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which followed 10,000 adults who were prescribed at least three opioid prescriptions for chronic pain such as back pain within a 90 day study period, 51 experienced at least one episode of overdose and six died from complications related to the drug taken as directed. In all fairness, the dosage level of the drug prescribed is tied directly to the chance of overdose. Case in point: in individuals given less than 20 mg of morphine a day for pain management, the rate of overdose is close to one in 500, whereas individuals prescribed morphine at 100 mg or more overdose at a rate of one in 60!

Changes You Can Take to Limit Your Risk

With several million Americans now using opioid drugs for chronic pain relief, even small rate percentages of overdose could lead to thousands of annual overdoses nationwide. To limit your risk, consider the follow options:

  • Consider conservative approaches for pain management, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, and other holistic forms of pain management as these solutions offer relief without the harmful side-effects associated with prescription drugs
  • If you decide to take pain medications for pain management, discuss dosage levels and quantity of the prescribed medication with your doctor, to decrease the risk of accidental overdose
  • Never leave pills in an area that is easily accessible to children and properly dispose of any and all medications that are no longer in use
  • Lifestyle changes involving exercise, diet, nutrition, and wellness care can have profound effects on pain and pain management. Simply losing weight can decrease the burden on the joints of your body. For instance, when walking we bear three to five times our body weight on our joints such as the ankles, knees, and hips, so a 10 pound weight loss could potentially remove 30 to 50 pounds of stress on your joints!
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