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U.S. News & World Report Interviews Dr. Williams About How to Avoid the Kind of Overdose That Ended Tom Petty's Life


Like tens of millions of Americans, rock star Tom Petty took prescription medications, including opioids, to alleviate pain. The recent announcement by the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner that Petty's death on Oct. 2 was caused by an accidental drug overdose as a result of mixing medications that included opioids underscores the risks associated with taking prescription pain medications, particularly for patients who use multiple prescription drugs, doctors say.

"No doubt about it, pain medication, particularly the powerful opioids that are used for severe or chronic pain, are a true double-edged sword," says Dr. Marc I. Leavey, a primary care specialist at Mercy Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Maryland. "Used properly, they can provide relief of pain and allow the patient to regain productivity; improper use can lead to death."

The risk of overdose is greatest for people who are taking multiple prescription medications, agreed Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation based in Center, City, Minnesota. For example, taking benzodiazepines – which many physicians commonly prescribe for anxiety, sleep problems and agitation – in combination with pain-killing opioids such as hydrocodone or oxycodone slows down the patient's breathing, which could lead to cardiac arrest and death, Seppala says.

Petty died of cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu a week after he'd completed a 40th anniversary tour with his band the Heartbreakers, which included 53 concert dates. The medical examiner's autopsy report said Petty's system had traces of eight medications, including fentanyl, oxycodone and temazapam. Petty's wife, Dana, and daughter, Adria, posted a message on the singer's Facebook page saying he suffered from "many serious ailments" including emphysema, knee problems and a fractured hip. The statement did not say when or how Petty had suffered the hip injury. Rolling Stone reported that Petty's manager, Tony Dimitriades, said Petty was suffering from a hairline fracture in his left hip during his final tour. "I don't know how it happened," Dimitriades said. "I don't think he even knew when it happened."

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