Prescription painkillers cause almost 75 percent of drug overdose deaths. At about 14,800 deaths in 2008, prescription painkiller overdoses caused more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. More discouraging is the new study finding that despite an increase in opioid perscriptions, doctors haven't gotten any better at identifying and treating pain.

“There is an epidemic of prescription opioid addiction and abuse in the United States,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, associate professor of epidemiology and medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, according to HealthDay. “We felt it was important to examine whether or not this epidemic has coincided with improved identification and treatment of pain.”

Looking at government data on the number of doctors’ office visits from 2000 to 2010, the researchers found no change throughout the 10-year span in the number of visits for pain that resulted in treatment with pain relievers. However, while treatment for pain with non-opioid painkillers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol) stayed about the same throughout — between 26 and 29 percent of all visits — the ratio of opioid prescriptions jumped from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 19.6 percent in 2010.

An analysis of doctors’ visits for new-onset musculoskeletal pain, which don't necessarily require opioid treatment, found that non-opioid prescriptions dropped from 38 percent to 29 percent of visits between 2000 and 2010, while opioid prescriptions rose.

“This suggests that efforts to improve the identification and treatment of pain may have backfired, due to an over-reliance on prescription opioids that have caused incredible morbidity and mortality among patients young and old alike,” Dr. Alexander said, according to MedicalXpress.

Opioids come from the opium poppy, and include the medications Vicodin, OxyContin, morphine, methadone, and codeine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that it would be changing safety label and post-market study requirements for some opioids in an effort to prevent misuse, addiction, and death resulting from the drugs. The changes are intended to curb illegal opioid drug use.