They're often called doctor shoppers, border hoppers, pharm-aholics and even hit-and-runners. They count on states' lack of communication and exploit professionals whose job is to heal, hurting themselves and feeding others' addictions through such feats.

They're prescription painkiller addicts and, like other drug addicts, often go to extreme measures to get their fix. It's not a new problem, just one that's recently become more visible with high-profile celebrity deaths being caused by prescription pill overdoses.

"The least fun part of my job is managing medications," said Connecticut-based pain physician Dr. David Kloth, who referred to Michael Jackson -- formerly the King of Pop -- as the King of Drug Popping. "You are suspicious of everybody -- it's sad, but everyone is painted with the same broad brush."

It may be sad, but it's what doctors face every day. Pain pill-related deaths have risen significantly over the years, with overdose deaths becoming the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in 2002, just behind motor-vehicle injuries, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study. This increased death rate stems from prescription drugs known as opioid analgesics -- powerful, addictive drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin that produce heroin-like effects -- that were increasingly prescribed in the 1990s to treat pain.

"Their potential for misuse was underestimated, and opioid analgesics quickly became the most popular category of abused drugs," the CDC report stated.

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Karen Wilkinson  | 

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.