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Opioid Addiction a Higher Risk for Women, Trends Show


Opioid addiction, one of America’s most compelling public health crises, doesn’t discriminate based on gender. But women face a higher risk for addiction and several significant barriers to treatment, according to reporting by the Hartford Courant.

Deaths from synthetic opioids in Connecticut jumped 125 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each day, 91 people die from opioid overdoses, which include deaths from prescription opioids and heroin.

While more men than women die from drug overdoses overall, more women are initiating opioid use than men. The gap in the number of deaths from prescription opioids is closing between men and women.

According to Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, deaths from opioid pain relievers increased fivefold between 1999 and 2010 for women while increasing only 3.6 times among men. Additionally, women are generally prescribed opioids for a longer period of time than men, increasing the likelihood an addiction will develop.

Women Are More Vulnerable to Addiction

Chronic pain is one of the main reasons individuals are introduced to opioid pain medication. More than 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and most of those individuals are women. Anyone can suffer from chronic pain, but women are often prescribed opioids after female-specific surgeries such as a cesarean section.

The average healing time for a C-section is about six weeks, but addiction to opioid pain medication can develop much more quickly than that, according to Patricia Rehmer, senior vice president of Hartford HealthCare and president of the Behavioral Health Network. She told the Courant that women are good doctor shoppers and can acquire multiple prescriptions for drugs such as oxycodone.

Women are often prescribed benzodiazepines such as Xanax for menopausal symptoms. Taking benzodiazepines with opioids can be fatal.

Jessica Smith, senior director of adult outpatient services at Wheeler Clinic, spoke to the Courant about the “telescoping effect” substance abuse can have on women. Women suffer physical harm from drugs and alcohol much quicker than men do. Female alcoholics develop liver cirrhosis and heart damage at a much faster rate than men.

Heroin is another growing problem for women. Opioid prescriptions have been severely limited by legislation in the past five years, and some individuals who were previously addicted to opioid pain medications have turned to heroin, an opiate derived from morphine, instead.

A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed heroin addiction is growing among all age, socio-economic and gender groups. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that heroin use among women doubled between 2003 and 2013.

Women Face Barriers to Treatment

Because addiction takes hold of women faster and results in increased negative physical effects, women generally come to treatment for addiction in worse shape than men. In 2011, a study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reported that women being treated for opioid addiction had more past and current medical issues than their male counterparts.

Several reasons exist why women might delay seeking treatment for their addiction. One is logistics, especially relating to motherhood. It can be difficult to commit to residential treatment for addiction, especially when the mother is the sole caregiver.

Women suffering from addiction may also worry that their children could be taken from them as a result of admitting they have an addiction and seeking treatment.

Another barrier to treatment for women is the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders that have gone untreated. These conditions are often caused or exacerbated by drug use. Anxiety, depression and other trauma-related mental health issues can contribute to both addiction and reluctance or inability to seek treatment.

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