They kill pain but they also kill people. A new Canadian study has found that deaths from prescription pain medications are on the rise.

“More people will die from prescription painkillers in 2009 than from H1N1,” Dr. Irfan Dhalla told Metro in an email.

Dhalla is lead author of the study and a clinician-scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Dhalla and his colleagues examined trends in the prescribing of opioid painkillers in Ontario from 1991 to 2007. Common opioids include Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan, Tylenol with codeine, Demerol, and morphine. These painkillers are often prescribed for acute pain, such as post-surgery pain or the pain associated with a broken bone. They may be used also for severe chronic pain, such as from some forms of cancer. Doctors are now also prescribing opioids for less-severe pain, such as chronic back pain.

When researchers studied data for all deaths from 1991 to 2004, they found that opioid-related deaths doubled in that period, from 13.7 per million in 1991 to 27.2 per million in 2004. Prescribing of oxycodone — the active ingredient in Oxycontin — has risen very rapidly. From 1999 to 2004, the number of deaths related to oxycodone rose fivefold, says Dhalla.

There are far more deaths in Ontario from prescription painkillers than from heroin or cocaine, noted the study.

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