Rx Painkillers Still a Significant Source of Addiction



The number of dental prescriptions for opioids has declined in recent years, though practitioners still should be concerned about their potential dangers. In fact, 52% of female methadone patients and 38% of male patients say that their addiction began with prescription opioids, according to researchers at McMaster University.

The study, which involved 503 patients at methadone clinics in Ontario, also found significant gender differences between their male and female patients. For example, the women had more physical and psychological health problems, more childcare responsibilities, and a greater likelihood of mental illness in the family. The men were more likely to be working and to smoke cigarettes.

“We found men and women who are addicted to opioids have very different demographics and health needs, and we need to better reflect this in the treatment options that are available,” said Monica Bawor, first author of the paper and a PhD neuroscience graduate of McMaster.

“A rising number of women are seeking treatment for opioid addiction in Canada and other countries, yet in many cases treatment is still geared towards a patient profile that is decades out of date—predominantly young men injecting heroin and with few family or employment responsibilities,” Bawor said.

Compared to studies from the 1990s, the average age of patients treated for addiction has risen from 25 years to 38 years, with opioid use starting at 25 years instead of 21. Also, injection drug use has declined by 60% with a 50% decrease in HIV rates among opioid users as a result.

At the same time, the researchers report a 30% increase in the number of patients becoming addicted to opioids through prescribed painkillers, usually for chronic pain management. Canada, which consumes more opioid painkillers than any other country, saw its prescriptions double over the past 2 decades, says the World Health Organization. Yet the reasons why women are disproportionately affected are unclear.

“It may be that they are prescribed painkillers more often because of a lower pain threshold or because they are more likely to seek medical care than men,” said Dr. Zena Samaan, senior author of the study. “For whatever reason, this is a growing problem in Canada and in other countries, such as the United States, and addiction treatment programs need to adapt to the changing profile of opioid addiction.”

The researchers hope their data will be used to develop integrative treatment regiments that cater to the individual needs of men and women, with treatment protocols that include specialized services such as vocational counseling, childcare and parenting assistance, medical assistance, and domestic violence counseling.

The study, “Sex Differences in Substance Use, Health, and Social Functioning Among Opioid Users Receiving Methadone Treatment: a Multicenter Cohort Study,” was published by Biology of Sex Differences. It received major funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

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