NEW YORK - Overdose deaths from powerful painkillers are still rising in the U.S., but not like they used to - probably because of new restrictions on methadone, according to government scientists.
In 2011, there were more than 41,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide, up from more than 38,000 the previous year. More than half of those deaths are from prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
But for many years, prescription opioid painkillers have driven the nation's soaring overdose death rate. Those numbers aren't climbing quite as fast lately, says the new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bad news
Opioid pain relievers are a powerful class of prescription drugs, and in 2011 contributed to nearly 17,000 deaths - more than three times as many as either heroin or cocaine. Death rates from some opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin, have continued to rise steadily.
The good news
There's been a slowdown in the overall rise in the opioid painkiller death rate. From 1999 through 2006, the rates were increasing by 18 percent each year. From 2007 through 2011, it's been 3 percent, the study found.
The slowdown appears mainly to be due to a decrease since 2007 in the annual number of deaths tied to methadone. Methadone is fingered in nearly a third of prescription painkiller deaths, CDC researchers said. Known mainly for treating heroin addiction, methadone is also prescribed for pain. The Food and Drug Administration in 2006 warned doctors to be more careful in prescribing the drug. And in 2008, methadone manufacturers agreed to limit distribution of the largest doses of the drug to only hospitals and to addiction treatment programs.
Additional government measures are coming to try to tamp down the death rates from other opioid painkillers. Starting next month, Vicodin and other medicines containing the opioid hydrocodone will become Schedule II drugs. That means prescriptions will be limited to a 30-day supply, and renewals will require a new written prescription. Also next month, a federal rule will take effect to allow patients to return unused, powerful drugs to pharmacies for disposal.
The restriction's impact on the death rate won't be known for a while, said Dr. Len Paulozzi, a CDC epidemiologist who tracks overdose deaths. Perhaps doctors will shift their prescriptions to less-restricted drugs, like the opioid painkiller tramadol, Paulozzi said. Meanwhile, reports from around the country have signaled a recent increase in heroin-related deaths. But the gap is wide and prescription painkillers are expected to remain the leading category of overdose deaths, Paulozzi said.