Overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have been surging at an alarming rate in the U.S., but here's a sliver of good news: The number...

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ATLANTA — Overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have been surging at an alarming rate in the U.S., but here’s a sliver of good news: The number blamed on methadone appears to have peaked.

Still, methadone accounts for nearly one-third of prescription painkiller deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

Methadone, known mainly for treating heroin addiction, is also prescribed for pain. Health officials say most of the overdose deaths are people who take it for pain — not heroin or drug addicts.

After a sharp rise, the number and rate of methadone-related overdose deaths have fallen since 2007, the CDC report shows.

Nonetheless, methadone accounts for 2 percent of pain prescriptions and more than 30 percent of painkiller overdose deaths, according to the report.

The CDC report mirrors findings in a Seattle Times series, “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.” The investigation, published in December, detailed that at least 2,173 people in Washington have died from accidental overdoses of methadone since 2003.

The Times found that a committee of state-appointed medical experts sanctioned methadone for years, empowering the state to designate it a “preferred drug” and steer people with state-subsidized health care — most notably, Medicaid patients — to the drug in order to save money. For the past decade, the state has declared methadone to be as safe and effective as any other narcotic painkiller.

State officials reversed their stance in January and warn doctors that methadone is riskier and more dangerous — a drug of last resort — because it can be unpredictable and poses a heightened risk of accidental death.

Overall, overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have increased by about four times over a decade, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Besides methadone, painkiller deaths primarily involve Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone) and Opana (oxymorphone).

Methadone mimics the effects of heroin and has been used to wean heroin users off of their addiction. Regular doses of methadone can reduce heroin cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Roughly 15 years ago, doctors started prescribing methadone more often for pain, partly because they were looking for an alternative to OxyContin, a narcotic pain reliever that increasingly was being tied to drug abuse and death. Insurers also encouraged doctors to prescribe methadone because it’s cheaper than some other painkillers.

But too much methadone can disrupt breathing, causing death. It also can cause a fatal irregular heartbeat, CDC officials say.

Seattle Times staff reporter Michael Berens contributed

to this report