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The Editors

The Painful Truth About Prescriptions

Has American medicine gotten too good at treating pain? The profession once took pain to be a positive sign of healing. As recently as 50 years ago, even patients recovering from surgery went without medicine to relieve the ache and discomfort. Today, when patients complain of pain, doctors listen and respond, and in many ways that’s a good thing.

It has brought about a new problem, however: an epidemic of overdose from opioid painkillers. The number of deaths -- 16,651 in 2010, according to statistics released last month -- has tripled since 1999 and is now greater than fatalities from heroin and cocaine combined. For every fatality, there are 35 emergency-room visits and 161 other reports of abuse or dependence. Statistics show that the rise in abuse has tracked a rise in doctors’ orders for the drugs.