Public Release: 

Preventing avoidable opioid-related deaths top priority for pain medicine field

Risky behavior, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse contribute to opioid overdose


Deaths related to prescription opioid therapy are under intense scrutiny, prompting those in pain medicine--clinicians, patient advocates, and regulators--to understand the causes behind avoidable mortality in legitimately treated patients. Studies reporting on statistics, causes, and adverse events involving opioid treatment are now available in a special supplement of Pain Medicine, a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM).

Opioids are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and include extended-release opioid analgesic drugs such as methadone, morphine, and oxycodone. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 29 million Americans age 12 and older misused extended-release and long-acting opioids in 2002 climbing to more than 33 million in 2007. The FDA also estimates that opioids were responsible for nearly 50,000 emergency room visits in 2006.

"Preventing unnecessary deaths from opioid therapy should be a central focus for everyone working in the field of pain medicine," said Lynn R. Webster, MD, FACPM, FASAM, Medical Director and Founder of Lifetree Clinical Research and Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah, and officer for the AAPM. "Our primary objective is to increase understanding of the major risk factors associated with opioid-related deaths and exploring methods that mitigate the adverse effects involved in treating patients with analgesics that are potentially lethal."

One study in the Pain Medicine supplement on opioid mortality reports on the findings of epidemiologists at the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) who examined medication-related harm starting in 2004. The research team, led by Christina A. Porucznik, PhD, MSPH, of the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah analyzed several data sources including vital statistics, medical examiner records, emergency department diagnoses, and the state prescription registry. "Our analysis showed that prescription drug-related harm, including death, in Utah primarily involved opioids," commented Dr. Porucznik. "Additional studies are needed to indentify risky prescribing patterns and individual-level risk factors which contribute to opioid-related injury or death."

In a related study, a panel of pain medicine experts, led by Dr. Webster, reviewed the medical literature and state and federal government sources to assess frequency, demographics and risk factors associated with overdose deaths caused by opioids. Analysis revealed a pattern of increasing opioid-related overdose deaths beginning in the early 2000s. While methadone represented less than 5% of opioid prescriptions dispensed, one third of opioid-related deaths in the U.S. were attributed to this drug.

Researchers determined that root causes of deaths from methadone included physician error due to knowledge deficits, patient non-adherence to prescribed medication regimen, and unanticipated medical or mental health comorbidities. Furthermore, some insurance companies require that methadone be used as first-line therapy to control pain over other opioid therapy. Forcing the use of methadone by health care providers who may not be aware of how to safely prescribe this drug may lead to greater mortality risk.

Additional contributors to overall opioid-related deaths included the presence of sleep-disordered breathing and use of other drugs that depress the central nervous system such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants. Approximately two thirds of opioid-related deaths are caused by opioids other than methadone. "Patients with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness who also have chronic pain need structured care that minimizes risks associated with opioid therapy," concluded Dr. Webster. "It is very difficult to safely treat chronic pain in patients who have serious mental health issues. We must strike a balance between treating pain and preventing harm."


These studies are published in Pain Medicine. Media wishing to receive a PDF of the articles may contact

Full Citations

Editorial: "Ending Unnecessary Opioid-Related Deaths: A National Priority." Lynn R. Webster. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01124.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Studying Adverse Events Related to Prescription Opioids: The Utah Experience." Christina A. Porucznik, Erin Johnson, Brian Sauer, Jacob Crook and Robert T. Rolfs. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01133.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: An Analysis of the Root Causes for Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths in the United States." Lynn R. Webster, Susan Cochella, Nabarun Dasgupta, Keri L. Fakata, Perry G. Fine, Scott M. Fishman, Todd Grey, Erin Johnson, Lewis K. Lee, Steven D. Passik, John Peppin, Christina A. Porucznik, Albert Ray, Sidney H. Schnoll, Richard L. Stieg, Wayne Wakeland. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01134.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Psychological Variables Potentially Implicated in Opioid-Related Mortality as Observed in Clinical Practice." Steve D. Passik and Amy Lowery. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01130.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Depression, Chronic Pain, and Suicide by Overdose: On The Edge." Martin Cheatle. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01131.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "System Dynamics Modeling as a Potentially Useful Tool in Analyzing Mitigation Strategies to Reduce Overdose Deaths Associated with Pharmaceutical Opioid Treatment of Chronic Pain." Wayne Wakeland, Teresa Schmidt, Aaron M. Gilson, David Haddox, Lynn R. Webster. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01127.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "A Review of Forensic Implications of Opioid Prescribing with Examples from Malpractice Cases Involving Opioid-Related Overdose." Lynn R. Webster, Ben Rich. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01129.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "State-Level Strategies for Reducing Prescription-Drug Overdose Deaths: Utah's Prescription Safety Program." Erin Johnson, Christina A. Porucznik, Jonathan W. Anderson, Robert T. Rolfs. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01126.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Provider Detailing: An Intervention to Decrease Prescription Opioid Deaths in Utah." Susan Cochella and Kim Bateman. . Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01125.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Project Lazarus: Community-Based Overdose Prevention in Rural North Carolina." Su Albert, Fred Wells Brason II, Catherine (Kay) Sanford, Nabarun Dasgupta, Jim Graham, Beth Lovette. Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01128.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

Article: "Obtaining Adequate Data to Determine Causes of Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths." Lynn R. Webster and Nabarun Dasgupta Pain Medicine; Published Online: June 13, 2011 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01132.x); Print Issue Date: June 2011.

About the Journal

Pain Medicine is a multi-disciplinary journal dedicated to the pain clinician, teacher and researcher. It is the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Faculty of Pain Medicine of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, and the International Spine Intervention Society. The journal is devoted to the advancement of pain management, education and research. For more information, please visit

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