The opioid epidemic remains a problem especially among women

By Lauren Tarpley

Meet Karen Cook. She is a 53-year-old wife and mother of one. She is an X-Ray technician. She is a Breast Cancer survivor. And, she is what doctors call a “physician assisted opioid addict”.

What is now the worst drug crisis in America—the opioid epidemic disproportionately targets middle-aged women, with 48,000 women dying of prescription pain killer overdose between 1999 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Easy access leads to addiction

Cook has endured a variety of chronic illnesses and surgeries from a very young age and still struggles with chronic pain along with depression and anxiety. As a result, Cook is very familiar with the treatments doctors typically prescribe—opioids.

“I don’t think anybody really thought I was going to live, so there was a time when I could get anything. Painkillers. Tranquilizers. Anything. All I had to do was ask,” Cook said.

Cook has been taking Klonopin, an opioid with sedative effects similar to Xanax, for fifteen years to combat her anxiety.

“When I first got them and started taking them, I was wound so tight I would take three a day. I would take Klonopin before breakfast. In X-Ray school I made A’s, but I was taking Klonopin before class,” Cook said. “I know I’m dependent on it now because I’ve tried to get off it.”

Impact of widespread drug addiction

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death within the United States, according to the CDC.  Furthermore, the number one cause of death in opioid overdose is “respiratory depression” which is essentially when one’s brain has a reduced urge to breathe. In other words, the opioids cause the back portion of the brain to fall asleep and in turn, the individual’s brain is literally put to sleep. This makes sense considering that opioids are the most addictive pain medications, according to Harvard Health Publications.

Andrew Kolodny M.D., founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said the high opioid users receive is identical to that of heroin. The need to experience this high can become an addiction for opioid users and could lead to an accidental overdose.

Juan Hernandez, 20, a Chapel Hill resident, said, “I can say that Xanax has placed an immense hold on my life due to the decisions I made while under the influence of them.”

The destruction caused by opioid addiction is not limited to opioid users. Friends, family members and loved ones can also suffer in the wake of addiction.

Olivia Huneycutt, 21, recalls what it is like living with an addict:

“With any drug addiction, you’re very wary of the person. You do things like count your pills even though you’ve already hidden them away. You think they might steal your money. You become very aware of how they act whenever they’re high.”

So, if doctors know about the potential risks of opioid prescriptions and their damaging effects, why do they continue to prescribe these drugs to patients? Simply put, opioids are cheap and easily accessible for both doctors and patients.

Opioids are also a proven treatment method for chronic pain—if you disregard the opioid addiction epidemic.

In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Director of Public Policy for the Society for Women’s Health Research Heather Boyd said approximately 50 million American women suffer from chronic pain associated with endometriosis, fibromyalgia, or other conditions. But, the effectiveness of opioid painkillers on chronic pains is also quite problematic considering that women are more likely to have chronic pain. Consequently, women are also more likely to be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and use these drugs for longer periods of time than men, she said.

“I have chronic pain,” Cook said. “I have taken myself off of many pain medications and weaned myself off many drugs because, like I said, at one point all I had to do was ask. That’s it. I can’t sleep? I get a sleeping pill. I’m stressed? I get some Xanax. That’s it.”

Cook’s story of physician assisted opioid addiction is one that reflects that of thousands of other American women. According to Kolodny, older Americans are developing opioid addictions through medical use. Once these people are addicted to the strong high provided by opioids, they don’t have to search for “street drugs” like heroin. They simply complain of pain to their doctors who increase their dosage, which can be deadly. The American Society of Addiction Medicine found that 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010 and the frightening statistics don’t end there.

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) has conducted studies on why the opioid epidemic in America largely targets women. Between 1999 and 2010, prescription painkiller overdose deaths among men increased by 237 percent. However, among women, the number of deaths increased by over 400 percent during this period. Perhaps this is due to the fact that women experience more frequent and intense pain than men. In terms of treatment, the SWHR found that women are more likely to be treated with prescription painkillers, like opioids, as compared to over-the-counter pain relievers. In addition, women are often given much higher doses for longer periods of time—often leading to dependency.

Looking forward

The attack on women’s health is of epidemic proportions, but legislatures as well as independent organizations are beginning to step up and combat the problem. For example, Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2016 during his presidency.

Boyd said in her blog:

“This legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services… to review, modify, and update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication and examine and identify the need for, development of, and availability of medical alternatives to opioids.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Simply put, the legislation promotes research of alternatives to opioids considering the epidemic at hand. Medicinal marijuana, for example, is significantly less addictive than opioids, but there are not enough research studies providing evidence of its medicinal qualities. The CARA legislation directly addresses this issue and therefore promotes research.

The opioid epidemic in America is disproportionately targeting women and while steps are being taken to minimize the effect these drugs have on our nation, there is still a long way to go. Through research, new legislation and support from loved ones this epidemic can be stopped.

Edited by Luke Bollinger