Chemical structure of methadone.

Opioids are strong drugs that are typically prescribed for cases of acute pain such as that from major trauma or post-surgery, and also for patients experiencing severe, chronic, debilitating pain; primarily from terminal cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.   Opioids chemically bind to receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system and produce an analgesic effect via decreased pain perception, decreased reaction to pain, and increased pain tolerance.

Morphine and codeine are opioid drugs derived from natural opiates of the opium poppy plant;   hydromorphone, hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, ethylmorphine and buprenorphine are semi-synthetic and created from either natural opiates or from morphine esters; fentanyl, pethidine, levorphanol, methadone, tramadol and dextropropoxyphene are fully synthetic opioids.

Doctors usually prescribe opioids with caution because of their side effects and propensity of addiction.  Known side effects include nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, itching, dry mouth, miosis, and constipation.   More potent doses can result in respiratory depression, confusion, hallucinations, itching, hypothermia, bradycardia/tachycardia (abnormally slow/fast heart rate), orthostatic hypotension, dizziness, headaches, urinary retention, ureteric or biliary spasm, muscle rigidity, myoclonus (involuntary muscle twitches) and flushing of the skin.  If the dose is not closely monitored and adjusted appropriately to the patient, side effects can often lead to serious consequences.  There is a troubling trend where

opioid drugs are increasingly being prescribed for less serious forms of pain such as back pain.  Not surprisingly, the number of documented cases of adverse drug reactions has risen accordingly.

When patients are not properly informed about how to take opioid painkillers or are prescribed too high a dose of these drugs, or too long a course of treatment, serious and potentially fatal side effects may result, including respiratory depression (reduced respiration or breathing). If left untreated, patients who develop respiratory depression as a result of a painkiller overdose may die from a lack of oxygen due to shallow breathing caused by the medication.

Thousands of patients die each year as a result of a prescription painkiller overdose.

The CDC reports that prescription painkiller overdoses were responsible for more than 15,500 deaths in 2009. While all prescription painkillers have contributed to an increase in overdose deaths over the last decade, methadone has played a central role in the epidemic. More than 30% of prescription painkiller deaths involve methadone, even though only 2% of painkiller prescriptions are for this drug. Six times as many people died of methadone overdoses in 2009 than a decade before.

When these deaths are the result of patients who were given excessive doses of pain medications, improperly warned about the side effects of the drug, or prescribed more potent drugs than were necessary, the doctors or hospital that prescribed these medications may be at fault.    The law firm of Heygood, Orr & Pearson is one of many in the country that offer legal assistance to those injured or damaged by taking prescription drugs.    The firm recently launched a website, Painkiller Overdose Lawyers . The site will serve as a resource with the latest news and legal information for patients who believe they were injured after using a prescription opioid painkiller.

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