WASHINGTON — Federal health regulators on Thursday approved the first hard-to-abuse version of the painkiller hydrocodone, offering an alternative to a similar medication that has been widely criticized for lacking such safeguards.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Purdue Pharma’s Hysingla ER for patients with severe, round-the-clock pain that cannot be managed with other treatments. The once-a-day tablet is designed to thwart abuse via chewing, crushing, snorting or injecting. The FDA said the medication is difficult to crush, break or dissolve. Purdue Pharma’s new drug poses a direct commercial challenge to Zogenix’s much-debated drug Zohydro, a twice-a-day hydrocodone tablet approved by the FDA last year.

Doctors prescribe opioids for a range of ailments, from post-surgical pain to arthritis and migraines. Deaths linked to abuse of the medications have quadrupled since 1990 to nearly 17,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical experts disagree over the appropriate role of opioids in treating pain, with some arguing that they should only be used for the most severe cases.