Background: Vital statistics data suggest that the opioid pain reliever (OPR) methadone is involved in one third of OPR-related overdose deaths, but it accounts for only a few percent of OPR prescriptions.
Methods: CDC analyzed rates of fatal methadone overdoses and sales nationally during 1999-2010 and rates of overdose death for methadone compared with rates for other major opioids in 13 states for 2009.
Results: Methadone overdose deaths and sales rates in the United States peaked in 2007. In 2010, methadone accounted for between 4.5% and 18.5% of the opioids distributed by state. Methadone was involved in 31.4% of OPR deaths in the 13 states. It accounted for 39.8% of single-drug OPR deaths. The overdose death rate for methadone was significantly greater than that for other OPR for multidrug and single-drug deaths.
Conclusions: Methadone remains a drug that contributes disproportionately to the excessive number of opioid pain reliever overdoses and associated medical and societal costs.
Implications for public health practice: Health-care providers who choose to prescribe methadone should have substantial experience with its use and follow consensus guidelines for appropriate opioid prescribing. Providers should use methadone as an analgesic only for conditions where benefit outweighs risk to patients and society. Methadone and other extended-release opioids should not be used for mild pain, acute pain, "breakthrough" pain, or on an as-needed basis. For chronic noncancer pain, methadone should not be considered a drug of first choice by prescribers or insurers.