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Women and Pain

Women at Risk: Pain Management Issues

Recent studies tell us that women suffer more from addiction to pain medications than men, according to Addiction Treatment Forum.com. This research is supported by a blog written by Dr. David Sack for the Huffington Post, based on research conducted in 2011 by the Institute of Medicine. The result is that women are 50 percent more likely than men to die from prescription drug overdose, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.

Those are some pretty scary figures! Both men and women abuse pain medications, so what gives? We explored some research provided by the American College of Preventive Medicine to bolster current findings.

Going back at least four decades, pain medications were rarely prescribed except for people suffering from pain related to a terminal illness—cancer, for example. However, about 15 years ago, doctors began measuring levels of pain right along with blood pressure and temperature. You’ve probably been asked at one time or another to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10.

In 2001, researchers Diane Hoffman and Anita Tarzian published “The Girl Who Cried Pain” in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. They cited statistics that women more likely to analyze their pain to discern whether it was likely to resolve on its own or not, and men more often responded with a negative attitude that their pain could be harmful. Nevertheless, both abdominal surgery and coronary bypass patients were more likely to receive narcotic analgesics if they were men, while women more often received acetaminophen.

Today, the tables have turned. Of the 25 percent of Americans who receive pain prescriptions each year, a majority of them are women.  Doctors are more knowledgeable about certain diseases that affect women more than men:  Women are more prone to develop multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune disorders, for example.

Biologically speaking, women’s bodies contain more water and fat than do men’s. For that reason, men metabolize pain medications more efficiently, and women are more prone to addiction to such medications.

There is also a consensus that women suffer from greater levels of stress and anxiety than men. Some people beg to differ: Perhaps both sexes suffer equally, but women are more likely to complain to their doctors, walking away with prescriptions for benzodiazepines, while men are more likely to toss back a drink or three.

The doctor may refuse to believe the woman has pain and will issue the benzo prescription, failing to cancel it when he finally writes her something for pain. While opiates are not supposed to be taken with benzos or with alcohol, women are suffering the greater percentage of overdoses based on combination doses.

Now pain medications are dispensed almost routinely, and people have come to expect routine pain medication prescriptions instead of “taking two aspirins and calling in the morning.” Physicians and nurse practitioners must be more vigilant about screening all patients not just to get an adequate idea of symptoms but also a full list of current medications. Both patients and practitioners need to develop greater awareness of more effective means for treating pain, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, movement therapy, and acupuncture. Addiction to pain medications poses a real struggle for both men and women, and treatment at a residential rehab center is often the best option.  

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