Emergency room visits in the U.S. tied to the abuse of prescription painkillers jumped 111 per cent in a five-year period, a new study suggests 

From 2004 to 2008, the estimated number of emergency department visits linked to the non-medical use of prescription pain relievers rose to 305,885 from 144,644 a year, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation's fastest-growing drug problem," Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, said in a release.

Visits to emergency departments for non-medical use of prescription pain drugs such as oxycodone are now as common as visits for illicit drugs, said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

"We urgently need to take action," Frieden said.

To reverse the trend, people must be taught to use prescription medications properly and safely.

The top three most abused prescription pain drugs identified in the study were:

  • Oxycodone (such as OxyContin).
  • Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin).
  • Methadone.

Emergency department visits involving non-medical uses of other types of prescription pain relievers such as morphine, fentanyl and hydromorphone also showed sharp rises, reflecting in part the increases in the rate at which the drugs are prescribed in the U.S., researchers said.

The report recommends measures such as prescribing opioid medications like OxyContin for acute or chronic pain only after determining that alternatives fail to offer enough pain relief, and monitoring the patient's dose.

In May, Canadian doctors issued similar guidelines for family doctors prescribing opioids with the aim of preventing overdoses and addressing under-treatment of some types of pain.

As opioids have become more widely used and abused, the number of people who've died as a result of taking opioids has doubled since 1991 to about 300 people a year in Ontario alone, according to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in December 2009.