Prescription Painkiller Use Epidemic in Women: Why the Increase?

Prescription Painkiller Use Epidemic in Women: Why the Increase?

By Lakeview Health
Lakeview Health
Published: September 27, 2013

The number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses has risen for more than a decade, and those numbers continue to alarm, no matter what subset you look at. One subset that has drawn attention is the number of women who died from opioid overdoses. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focused on the fact that this number increased five times from 1999 to 2010. The same report showed that emergency room visits by women for opioid misuse or abuse doubled between 2004 and 2010. The deaths among women by overdose are greater than deaths for cervical cancer. Certain factors combined to make prescription overdoses more likely and seemingly inevitable for women. They are more likely to get these prescriptions, more likely to use them in a way that puts them at risk of overdose and more likely to downplay the danger linked to them.

Prescription Pills ‘Don’t Count’

Behaviors around prescription painkillers contribute to the rise in their addiction numbers. Some people would say that painkiller addiction ‘doesn’t count’ or seems more acceptable because prescriptions start out legitimately. Painkiller addiction does not necessarily start from other recreational drug use or hard-partying teen years. It can start with a bad knee or wisdom tooth removal. The ease of access to prescription painkillers opens the door to addiction for many people who never would have considered themselves potential addicts. According to the most recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health, more than half of people who used prescription drugs nonmedically got them for free from a friend or family member. And of the people who were the sources of the prescriptions, 80 percent got a legitimate prescription from just one doctor. So, despite the media hype for ‘doctor shopping’ and buying drugs illegally, most illegal use of prescription painkillers can be traced to completely legitimate prescriptions. Those facts alone should be enough for anyone to think twice about the leftover prescriptions in their homes and pills they keep on hand “just in case.”

The Woman Most Likely To…

Some of the ways opioids are prescribed may contribute to the increase in mortality among women.

According to CDC Director Tom Frieden, women are more likely than men to:

  • Have chronic pain
  • Receive higher doses of pain relievers and for a longer duration
  • Experience pain commonly treated by opioids (abdominal, migraine, musculoskeletal)
  • Receive the same dosage despite weighing less

Chronic pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis are much more likely to occur in women than men. Studies show that women get addicted to drugs faster than men do (possibly because of smaller size and weight). But on the flip side, they are slower to seek help for that addiction, which just increases their risk for overdose.

Opioids Are Not Alone: Deadly Combos

The greater rise in deaths for women may be attributed to the fact that many opioid overdoses occur in combination with other drugs—drugs that women are more likely to have. The drugs most commonly found taken in combination with opioid overdoses are benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety meds like Xanax), which were seen in 30 percent of opioid overdoses, and antidepressants, which were part of 13.4 percent of opioid overdoses. Both of those classes of drugs are more likely to be prescribed to women than men. Most of the overdoses were accidental. Of all prescription overdose deaths in 2010, only 17 percent were identified as suicides and nearly three-quarters of the overdoses were completely accidental. That fits with women taking opioids, anti-anxiety pills and antidepressants, and maybe throwing in a sleeping pill or having a drink. Just a slight change to a safe combination or one extra dose can mean the difference between life and death.