Oct 23 (Reuters) - The number of drug and alcohol problems diagnosed by U.S. doctors increased by 70 percent between 2001 and 2009, possibly driven by a surge in painkiller abuse, according to a U.S. study.
"We know that increases in prescription drug use are a big part of what's going on nationally," said lead author Joseph Frank, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"I also think - in our study - the availability of effective treatment is a big part of it as well and likely driving people into care."
Those treatments include medications such as methadone, as well as talk therapy.
The study, which used information from two national surveys of doctors' visits, estimated that the number of those visits involving drug or alcohol abuse or addiction increased from 10.6 million between 2001 and 2003 to 18 million between 2007 and 2009.
Over the same span, the number of visits including a diagnosis of opioid painkiller abuse, in particular, increased from 772,000 to 4.4 million, almost a six-fold increase.
"This finding is consistent with trends in substance use disorder-related utilization at the nation's community health centers and emergency departments and, sadly, use of its morgues," the authors wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Psychiatry researcher Amy Bohnert from the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor said she's not surprised with the increase in opioid-related visits.
"It is quite a large increase and it does really highlight that this is a substantial problem in terms of this being a growing trend," said Bohnert, who wasn't involved in the study, to Reuters Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 14,800 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2008, three times the number of such deaths 20 years earlier.
Across the United States, it's estimated that 22.5 million people are dependent on alcohol or drugs, according to Frank's team.
Despite the large increase in opioid abuse diagnoses, the researchers said their study does provide a reason for optimism - specifically, that the number of medicines prescribed to treat drug or alcohol problems during doctors' visits increased by about as much as the number of visits related to opioid abuse.
The most popular treatment, however, was talk therapy, which was used in about 25 million total patients during the study period. Its use did not change much over time.
Frank told Reuters Health that the findings are a mix of good news and bad news.
"I think it's a mixed bag that highlights the magnitude of the problem and suggests we're heading in the right direction" when it comes to treatment, he said. SOURCE: http://bit.ly/MbBLb9 (Reporting from New York by Andrew Seaman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)