People need to know that there is hope. ...People need to know that there is help, that we can get them off of them in a safe way and then use several different treatment options to help them stay off of them. —Dr. Scott Erickson

SALT LAKE CITY — Women are dying in increasing numbers from something prescribed by their doctors, a new study shows.

Roughly 18 women die each day from overdosing on prescription painkillers, which accounted for 6,600 deaths in 2010, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More men die annually (10,000) from prescription painkiller doses than women, but the percentage of deaths among women is rising more dramatically, the CDC reported. Between 1999 and 2010, there was a 400 percent increase in women's prescription painkiller deaths, compared with a 265 percent increase among men.

Women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic diseases, be prescribed prescription pain medication, use the medication for long periods of time and become dependent, the CDC reported.

"It just supports what we've been seeing," said Dr. Scott Erickson, medical director for the New Vision medical stabilization center at Lake View Hospital in Bountiful. "It's an epidemic here in Utah. It's an epidemic here in the United States."

Roughly 23 Utahns die monthly from prescription opioid abuse, according to the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health 2012 annual report. The number of pain medication overdoses statewide has grown more than 400 percent since 2000, which is similar to the CDC data for women in a similar time period.

Many people assume that because they received a prescription from their doctors, they are OK to keep using the drug. However, Erickson said, painkillers are "a few molecules away from heroin" and affect the same pain receptors.

While prescription painkillers are appropriate for short-term, intense pain, Erickson said he is not aware of any study that shows them to be more effective than ibuprofen for long-term treatment. In addition, people become dependent on opiates and may face withdrawal symptoms, he said.

Called opioid-induced hyperalgesia, the opiate receptors actually become "hypersensitized to pain," Erickson said. It may take someone anywhere from four to seven days to get over the initial pain, but take six to 18 months for the opiate receptors to get back to normal, he said.

Within the first month or two, many people begin to see that their pain was not as bad as they had initially thought, Erickson said. They become more alert and begin thinking more clearly.

The New Vision center assists those looking to recover from painkiller addiction, including a three- to five-day inpatient program and additional support to help with the transition off pain killers. This includes a monthly injection of Vivitrol, a medication that blocks the effects of opiate medications and helps prevent relapse.

As addictive as these medications can be, Erickson said, change is possible.

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"People need to know that there is hope," he said. "There's so many people that are trapped because they get hooked on the pain medicines and they can't get off of them because of these withdrawal symptoms, and so they just stay on these pain medicines knowing that they are controlling their lives.

"And people need to know that there is help, that we can get them off of them in a safe way and then use several different treatment options to help them stay off of them," Erickson said.


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