Prescription Drugs

Emergency Visits Double for Nonmedical Use of Pain Relievers

Visits to hospital emergency departments involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers more than doubled, rising 111 percent (from 144,644 visits to 305,885 visits a year), between 2004 and 2008, according to a study co-released by SAMHSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study used data from SAMHSA’s Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) and examined emergency department (ED) visits for nonmedical use of legal drugs, such as using the drugs without a prescription.

The dramatic rise in ED visits associated with nonmedical use of these drugs occurred among both men and women, as well as among those younger than age 21 and those 21 and older.

“These alarming findings provide one more example of how the misuse of prescription pain relievers is impacting lives and our health care system,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. “This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs.”

Specific Drugs

The three prescription opioid pain relievers most frequently involved in hospital emergency department visits from 2004 to 2008 were:

  • Oxycodone products—ED visits involving nonmedical use rose 152 percent, to 105,214.
  • Hydrocodone products—ED visits involving nonmedical use rose 123 percent, to 89,051.
  • Methadone products—ED visits involving nonmedical use rose 73 percent, to 63,629.

The numbers of ED visits involving nonmedical use of other types of prescription pain relievers such as morphine, fentanyl, and hydromorphone were lower, but they also showed sharp rises during this period. For example, hydromorphone-related nonmedical use visits rose 259 percent from 2004, to 12,142 in 2008.

These upward trends reflect in part dramatic increases in the rate at which these drugs are prescribed in the United States.

The study was co-released in the following reports:

The reports are based on data from SAMHSA’s Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) for 2004 to 2008. DAWN is a public health information system that monitors drug-related ED visits throughout the United States.

For more information, contact Prevention Works at or (716) 664-3608.