The opioid epidemic has taken an increased toll on women’s lives. From 1999 to 2016, opioid deaths among women have gone up 583% compared to men, which have gone up 404% (according to Women’s Health Research at Yale). But why? Research suggests that women are more sensitive to pain and have more chronic pain than men, making it more likely for them to become addicted to pain pills and other opioids.
For some, addiction starts as early as during childbirth. A study showed that women were more likely to become addicted to opioids after being prescribed them to treat pain associated with either vaginal or cesarean childbirth. Unfortunately, doctors over-prescribe the medication. Opioids have been increasingly prescribed to women, even when there was no benefit indicated, such as for headaches. This has contributed to the current opioid epidemic.
Why Older Women Easily Become Addicted to Pain Pills
There are an increasing number of Baby Boomer women now addicted to opioids. One contributing factor is an increased access to opioids from doctors prescribing for pain or illnesses related to aging.
Chronic or strong pain is usually handled with strong opioids such as Percocet, Oxycontin or Vicodin. Unfortunately, most doctors do not consider possible addiction in their older patients because there is a perception that aches and pains are a normal part of the aging process. Another factor is life changes, either divorce, death of a spouse or an empty nest that can lead to social withdrawal or feelings of isolation. Emotional pain is often a precursor to “self-medicate” against those difficult feelings. Retirement can also cause anxiety and stress, triggering a desire to self-medicate. As older women approach these transitions in life, family members need to be more actively aware of any mood or behavioral changes that could indicate drug addiction.
Physiological changes occur as people age and they metabolize drugs and alcohol at slower rates than when younger. This causes the drugs to have a more profound and longer affect, which can more easily and quickly lead to addiction. Many times an older person will have several prescriptions and the side effects are compounded or the drug interactions could severely depress the respiratory system, adding to an already compromised state of health.
How Do Opioids Work?
Opioids reduce the perception of pain by working on the limbic system (network of nerves and the brain) pain receptors. Depending on the chemical composition and action mechanism of the opioid, it can also cause mild to intense euphoria all the way down to drowsiness and respiratory depression, due to the excessive release of dopamine, a pleasure-providing neurotransmitter, usually associated with sexual arousal or an exercise workout.
Symptoms of Opioid Addiction
Opioids are only meant to be used for short-term pain management, three to seven days. In fact, it is widespread knowledge that pain medication can turn to addiction in as little as five days of use. They are not meant for long term use, except for end-of-life situations.
For active females and aging women, if there is a history of substance abuse, the risk is higher for addiction when prescribed opioids.
Opioid Addiction Signs
- behavioral changes
- psychological changes
- poor judgement
- lack of caring or apathy
- difficulty in focusing
- compromised memory
Side Effects of Opioid Abuse
- Slurred speech
- Constricted eye pupils
- Dry mouth
- Abdominal cramping
- Slow or diminished respiration
- Skin rashes
- Weight gain
- Menstrual problems
- Loss of sexual desire
- Mood swings
Drug dependence happens when the body gets used to having the drug and will only function normally as long as the drugs are present and kept at the same dosage or increased. Opioids, at first, give the individual a sense of euphoria which sets up an expectation and craving for repeated use. Over time, the euphoric effects diminish as the brain’s opioid receptors change, at the cellular level, to protect against overstimulation.
People will continue to use despite awareness of potential hazards to their health and psychological risks. Usage can also cause social and personal problems, culminating in failure to fulfil work, school or home obligations. There is also the risk of respiratory depression, drug overdose and death with larger doses. Ongoing use, with all these risks in mind, is the definition of addiction.
Opioid Withdrawals for Women
Opioid withdrawal is a painful process, which is why many opioid users dread it, preventing them from getting the help they need. The long term consequences of opioid withdrawal include anxiety and depression with drug cravings that can continue for months or years after being free of use. There is also an increased sensitivity to pain, real or imagined, and the individual is more vulnerable to any stressful situation or event.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
- Anxiety or feelings of panic
- Paranoia or feelings of fear
- Muscle aches and pains,
- Spasms and stiffness
- Bone and joint pain
- Cold flashes
- Uncontrollable shaking
Because the withdrawal process is so intense with insurmountable discomfort, the desire to stop it and continue drug use is common. It is the leading cause of failed drug detox and treatment. The high rates of opioid drug relapse reflect this truth. Unfortunately, these individuals have a tendency to return to the dosage they were using before they stopped, putting themselves at greater risk for respiratory depression and death.
With Your Help and Our Intervention, Mom Can Get Better
Opioid addiction doesn’t care who or how old the individual is – it’s an equal opportunity destroyer. If you suspect your mother, daughter, sister or aunt might be addicted to opioids, check for the symptoms and signs. Staging an intervention for your loved one is the first step in getting the necessary treatment and recovery.