Overdose deaths of women from narcotic painkillers rose by more than 400 percent within a decade, outstripping the upswing in prescription drug-abuse deaths in men, according to a new government study released Tuesday.
Prescription painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, killed 6,631 women in 2010 compared with 1,287 overdose deaths in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a nationwide investigation.
Since 2007, more women have died each year from prescription drug overdoses than from vehicle-related injuries, the study found.
Men are also abusing the same drugs and, though more men die of prescription narcotic abuse than women, the percentage increase is not as high. Deaths rose by 265 percent for men during the same decade; the medications killed 10,020 men.
"These are dangerous medications," said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who also underscored that the drugs are being prescribed too freely and for the wrong kind of pain.
"They should be reserved for severe cancer pain," he said.
Middle-aged white women between 45 and 54 experienced the highest rates of overdose deaths, the study found.
Because more women are abusing prescription medications than they had in the past, Frieden said the drugs now kill twice as many women as cervical cancer.
Part of the problem, Frieden said, can be attributed to doctors trying to blunt chronic or severe pain, reported more frequently by women compared with men. Women, he noted, are more likely to complain of pain related to fibromyalgia, abdominal discomfort and migraine headaches.
The study also found women are more likely to indulge in "doctor shopping," going from one physician to another seeking prescriptions for narcotic medications.
The overall problem -- regardless of gender -- stems from the sheer abundance of narcotic opioid medications available to the public, the study found.
Enough pain relievers were sold in 2010, according to the research, to medicate each adult in the U.S. with a five-milligam dose of hydrocodone every four hours for a month. That's a 300 percent increase in prescription narcotic sales over the 11-year study period.
Overdose deaths and chronic, nonmedical uses of the drugs have correlated with the rise in availability, the study found.
Federal researchers did not investigate rising criminal activity associated with the medications. A spate of pharmacy robberies have plagued Long Island over the past two years, the latest one earlier this week.
Dr. Thomas Jan, a Massapequa pain specialist and member of the Nassau County Heroin and Prescription Drug Task Force, said the new research does not surprise him.
"Absolutely not," Jan said, noting that prescription drug abuse is spreading through the population. He said it is not always a result of bad doctors.
"Doctors have to see more patients these days and it's easier to treat them with a pill and give them what they want.
"Ninety percent of the doctors are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons," he said of prescribing narcotics to treat nonspecific pain and other maladies for which other measures, such as physical therapy, might work better.