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Women and opioid addiction

The number of patients prescribed opioid pain medications has increased considerably in recent years. Along with the increase in prescriptions, there has also been an increase in the number of people – including women – who become addicted to these medications.

Addiction of any kind may affect women differently than men, in part because of how addiction is perceived in our culture.

“There is a perception among society and among families that a woman who is addicted is more deviant than a man who is addicted,” explains Dr. Meldon Kahan, medical director of the Substance Use Service at Women’s College Hospital. “I think that for women, addiction tends to be a more shameful and secret thing than it may be for men, and they’re maybe less likely to reach out for help.”

He adds that in some ways, women may feel they have more to lose by reaching out for help.

“They’re often not willing to disclose their addiction because they don’t feel they’re going to get sympathy from their partner or from their parents or from family members or friends. And they feel they have a lot to lose if they try to go for treatment,” Dr. Kahan says. “If they’re a caregiver, such as a mother of a child, they worry about child protection agencies, and they often don’t have options such as going away to a treatment program for months because they’re caring for their children and that’s simply not an option.”

However, Dr. Kahan urges women to seek treatment for opioid addiction.

“The most important message is don’t try to deal with it on your own,” he says. “It’s better to get the help that’s out there, because it is very effective.”

Common causes

The most common cause of opioid addiction in women is valid medical use of a pain drug. Most women who become addicted to opioids are taking legitimate prescriptions from a doctor for a chronic pain condition.

“The first thing I would want women who are addicted to prescription opiates to know is, it’s not your fault,” Dr. Kahan says. “Most of the time they started opiates for chronic pain and then they had a reaction to it and they ended up being addicted to it. So in a way, addiction is a complication of medical therapy. It’s not like they intended to misuse the drug.”

There are factors that may increase the risk that a woman who is prescribed opioids may develop an addiction.

One risk factor is post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Many women who have a history of childhood abuse or neglect are at risk for developing a problem if they’re prescribed opiates for chronic pain, because they will find that the opiates relieve their anxiety and their bad memories,” Dr. Kahan says.

Other risk factors include:

  • other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • a past history of addiction to other drugs
  • a strong family history of addiction

Treatment is effective

There are two types of treatment programs for people with opioid addictions, and both are very effective.

  • abstinence-based programs that provide counselling and help with withdrawal symptoms
  • opiate substitution programs using methadone or Suboxone under medical supervision

“Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I think women should talk to someone as soon as they’re able to in order to get an idea of what would work best for them,” Dr. Kahan says.

“Treatment is very effective for most patients, and if they are able to get treatment, their pain and their mood and their function will improve. So the sooner they’re able to access treatment, the better it is for them.”

Women seeking help for a substance use problem can talk to their doctor or their healthcare provider, or consult some of these resourcesopens in a new window.

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 4, 2014

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