The Opioid Epidemic: Are Women Most Vulnerable?

The opioid epidemic is a serious public health problem that impacts us professionally, as well as many of us personally. Asking about drug use is something we were taught while in nursing school. Assessing and managing pain has always been a big part of our training too. Now, as the United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, our assessment and communication skills must reach a new level. Those of us who are advanced practice nurses who are also prescribers, have even more to consider when it comes to pain management.

women-and-opioids.pngAs a women’s health nurse practitioner, new research on age and gender trends related to the opioid epidemic caught my eye. Findings revealed excessive opioid prescribing with persistent use among women. This new report, conducted by the QuintilesIMS Institute, states that “middle-aged women are prescribed more opioids than any other group – twice as many as middle-aged men – making them particularly vulnerable to opioid use.” The research report, The United States for Non-Dependence: An Analysis of the Impact of Opioid Overprescribing in America, shows individuals undergoing surgery are at particular risk, due to the prescribing of opioids to manage postsurgical pain.

Here are some interesting facts from the report that you should know:
  • Patients receive an average of 85 pills following surgery.
  • Overprescribing leads to 3.3 billion pills left unused-leaving them available for misuse.  
  • In 2016, three million surgical patients became persistent opioid users.
  • The majority of opioid addictions start with prescription medications.
  • Surgery is an unintentional gateway to the opioid crisis.
  • 40% more women than men become persistent opioid users after surgery.
  • Women ages 40-59 are prescribed more opioids than any other age group and have the highest death rates from misuse.
Another report from the Office on Women’s Health demonstrates that between 1999 and 2015, the rate of deaths from prescription opioid overdoses increased 471 percent among women, compared with an increase of 218 percent among men; and heroin deaths among women increased at more than twice the rate than among men. Also, the differences in how prescription opioid and heroin use impacts women and men are often not well understood. There are potentially many factors that affect a woman’s path to opioid misuse and dependancy, including biological and social influences, past experiences, geography, and demographic characteristics. However, many knowledge gaps remain on how these relate to the opioid misuse.

According to the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are more likely than men to experience chronic pain, and use prescription opioid pain medications for longer periods and in higher doses. Women tend to use substances differently than men, sometimes using a smaller amount of drugs for a shorter period of time before they become dependent. In March of 2016, the CDC issued the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain — United States, 2016, which summarized the research literature on the benefits and risks associated with prescribing opioids and provides an evidence-based guide for prescribers and patients to share decision-making responsibility about opioid use, and alternative treatment options for chronic pain management.   

As a women’s health nurse practitioner, this has significant impact to my practice, and my licensing. Some states now require opioid education in order to renew prescriptive authority. Combatting this problem requires a multi-factorial approach. We all need to be more aware and vigilant with prescribing, confirming orders, patient education, and post-surgical follow up.
Dowell, D., Haegerich, T., & Chou, R. (2016, March 18). CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain — United States,  2016. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention :

Office on Women's Health. (2016, December). White Paper: Opioid Use, Misuse, and Overdose in Women. Retrieved from Women'

Pacira Pharmaceuticals, Inc. . (2017, September 26). Plan Against Pain . Retrieved from The United States for Non-Dependence: An Analysis of the Impact of Opioid Overprescribing in America:
Lynne Centrella Rudderow, MSN, RN, CRNP, WHNP-BC, CCE



Posted: 11/6/2017 8:30:56 AM by Lisa Bonsall, MSN, RN, CRNP | with 1 comments

These numbers are terrifying. I saw a quote from Cleveland Clinic the other day, along the lines of 'We are part of the problem, it's time to be part of the solution' and truly - We need to get there faster than ever. The healthcare industry has got to stop handing out pills like candy, people need to be stronger and more motivated following surgery.
11/21/2017 6:19:19 AM