Why The Opioid Epidemic Impacts More Women Than Men

By Heather Boyd, MPP, Director of Public Policy at SWHR

Approximately 50 million American women live with pain associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, chronic migraine headaches and other chronic pain conditions. Women are also more likely than men to suffer from more than one of these chronic pain conditions, leading to an estimated $91 billion in annual direct and indirect costs for the four aforementioned disorders alone.

Studies have shown that women experience more frequent and intense pain than men and respond differently to medications to treat their pain. Treatment options for women with chronic pain conditions include over-the-counter pain medications and prescription medications for pain, which can include opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and many others.

Women with chronic pain conditions are more likely to be treated with prescription pain relievers, like opioids, at higher doses and also use them for longer periods of time than men. This has led to more women becoming dependent on these prescription pain relievers more rapidly than men. In fact, between 1999 and 2010, prescription pain reliever overdose deaths among women increased more than 400 percent, compared to a 237 percent increase among men.

In July, President Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 into law. This legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services to convene a Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force to review, modify, and update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication and examine and identify the need for, development of, and availability of medical alternatives to opioids. In addition, this legislation authorizes the Department of Justice to award grants to state, local, and tribal governments to provide services that address the national epidemic of prescription opioid abuse.

Identifying best practices for pain management is an important first step to prevent the opioid addiction crisis in the U.S. from worsening. Additional steps to address this abuse epidemic should focus on solutions that consider the individual needs of patients suffering from one or multiple chronic pain conditions. While some patients need prescription pain medications, it is the responsibility of their treating physicians to consider the needs of their patient, which includes evaluating whether that patient may be at risk for becoming addicted to their medication.

Women who suffer from chronic pain conditions must be appropriately treated for their pain. Physicians and patients can work together to develop a treatment plan that manages patients' pain appropriately and prevents addiction to pain medication from occurring.

The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) recommends all women with one or multiple chronic pain conditions talk to their physician about how to best treat their pain. SWHR encourages women to be advocates for their own health and play an active role in their healthcare. Learn more about the work we do by visiting our website.