Prescription Tramadol: New Preteen High

Four junior high school girls in Utah were treated for an overdose of tramadol.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 5:53 PM

Sept. 12, 2008 — -- Tramadol -- a prescription drug that was touted as a safe alternative to powerful opioids like oxycodone -- is of increasing concern to law and addiction experts who say children as young as 8 are experimenting with the painkiller.

This week four Utah junior high schoolers were sent to the hospital after one overdosed on what teens call "ultras" -- slang for a drug marketed under the name Ultram.

Though all the girls are fine, experts say in higher doses, the drug can stop breathing and causes seizures and death.

"While this particular drug was, a few years ago, only rarely mentioned by the teens, it does seem to have exploded in popularity over the past year," said Rick Kirkham, who chronicled his addiction to crack cocaine in the 2006 documentary "TV Junkie" and now educates students about drug use.

"Kids are now much more educated on the more 'out of the cross hairs' prescription drugs readily sitting in their family medicine cabinets," he told

Tramadol is a narcotic analgesic, or opioid, that is chemically related to codeine and is used to treat mild to moderate pain. Because of the danger of drugs like oxycodone, doctors are prescribing it more often.

Because the drug is nonscheduled, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't keep statistics on its use, but lists tramadol as a "drug of concern."

Like other prescriptions drugs, "We're seeing kids as young as 8 and 12 and they are getting it at school," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told "You've got to figure a lot of kids are lighter and don't have the same metabolism as adults. Adult drugs can be fatal."

"Part of the problem of pharmaceutical drug abuse is because the stigma that there is with cocaine, heroin or crack," said Courtney. "But look at Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith."

More than half of people older than 12 who use pain relievers nonmedically get them free from a relative or friend, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That troubling trend has spilled down to junior high schoolers.