An investigation just published by Consumer Reports finds use of prescription painkillers has continued to rise, despite efforts to raise awareness about the dangers these drugs pose. According to the new report, the number of prescriptions written by doctors for opioids has increased by 300 percent in the last decade. In addition, deaths from overdose are up 400 percent since 1999.
Currently in the U.S., an average of 46 people each day -- or 17,00 each year -- die from overdose of medications such OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. These drugs are used to manage pain for conditions that range from acute injury, surgery and cancer. They are as addictive as heroin.
"This is a drug that needs to be monitored carefully to make sure that patients aren't taking more than they should and they should be withdrawn at the earliest time when they are no longer needed," Dr. Marvin Lipman, chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports, told CBS News.
Consumer Reports is calling upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to strengthen regulations for these medications such has requiring stricter labeling. It also urged the FDA to reconsider their approval of Zohydro, a new prescription narcotic that barely made it through the agency's approval process and many experts say will simply fill the needs of the street narcotics market, rather than help patients.
Jason Kusiak became addicted to painkillers in high school after they were prescribed when he broke his arm and leg. The 30-year-old has been in recovery for four years.
"The pain kind of went away but I still had the medicine and I just kept taking it and taking it," Kusiak told CBS News. "It's not a cure-all; taking this drug isn't going to make you feel completely better."
However, medical experts say if used correctly, the drugs can be beneficial to patients in the short term to manage some conditions. However, painkillers often are unnecessarily prescribed for conditions such as migraines and nerve pain, even though there are a number of safer options.
Consumer Reports also cautioned people about the dangers of acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), the common anti-inflammatory pain reliever and fever reducer that's available to anyone over-the-counter at pharmacies, supermarkets and other stores. It's estimated that some 80,000 people die each year from accidental overdose of acetaminophen. Experts say accidental overdoses can easily happen because dosages vary widely from brand to brand, and many people fail to review labels if they regularly take acetaminophen for even minor aches and pains.
Sean Clarkin, a spokesperson for the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, said doctors and patients need to be better educated about alternatives to these potentially lethal drugs.
"Let's not assume that prescription pain relievers are the only answer to every kind of condition that involves pain," he told CBS News.