More than 50% of female methadone clinic patients became addicted to opioids after using prescription painkillers, according to new research published in the journal Biology of Sex Differences.

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Half of female methadone patients originally became addicted to prescription opioids.

The number of patients seeking help after becoming addicted through doctor-prescribed painkillers increased by 30%. Most of them originally took the opioids for chronic pain management.

The current study highlights the differences in profile between people seeking treatment now and those for whom treatment plans were originally designed.

In Canada, the number of opioid painkiller prescriptions has doubled in the last 20 years, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Canada consumes more opioid painkillers than any other country.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, set out to investigate gender differences between men and women attending the clinics.

They recruited 503 men and women from 13 methadone clinics in Ontario.

The participants were attending the clinics for opioid dependence disorder and provided researchers with detailed information on their health and lifestyle, as well as urine tests for drug use.

It was found that 52% of women and 38% of men had their first contact with opioid drugs as a result of doctor-prescribed painkillers. Opioid painkillers include prescription medicines such as oxycontin and codeine, as well as illicit drugs such as heroin.

Women were more likely than men to have physical and psychological health problems, child care responsibilities and a family history of psychiatric illness.

Men were more likely than women to be working, to smoke cigarettes and to have smoked cannabis, although rates of cannabis use were relatively high among both men and women, with 47% of participants reporting that they had used cannabis in the month prior to the study.

The differences in demographics and health needs are significant, indicating a changing profile in recent decades of people addicted to opioids.

In the 1990s, the average age of patients being treated for opioid addiction was 25 years, and drug use started on average at the age of 21. The average age of patients now is 38, having started opioid use at 25.

A 60% decrease in the rate of injecting drugs led to a 50% reduction in HIV among opioid users.

Lead author Monica Bawor says that most studies about methadone treatment involve few or no women at all. The findings highlight the need to reflect the presence of women in the available treatment options.

She adds:

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, male, injecting heroin, and with few family or employment responsibilities.”

It is not clear why women are so greatly affected by opioid dependence originating from prescription painkillers. It could be that they are prescribed them more often due to a lower pain threshold, or because they are more likely than men to seek medical care.

Social and biological factors mean that women are more vulnerable to the adverse medical and social consequences of opioid dependence, with a higher number of medical problems, poor health outcomes and social impairment.

A patient-centered treatment plan is needed that addresses the individual needs of men and women, according to the researchers. This could include vocational counseling, child care and parenting assistance, medical assistance and relationship or domestic violence counseling, and should be available and accessible on a large scale.

The researchers call for updated protocols in Canada and more comprehensive guidelines in the US to accommodate the specific needs of women.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on the danger of abuse of opioid drugs prescribed for chronic back pain.