This Is the Group That’s More Likely to Be Prescribed Opioids—and Get Addicted

Updated: Oct. 06, 2017

When people show up to the ER or leave the OR after surgery, one group is more likely to walk out with a prescription for opioid painkillers, which sets them up to seek more.

prescriptionSaklakova/Shutterstock When you picture drug addicts, you probably don’t conjure images of middle-aged women. But that’s exactly who is most likely to be prescribed opioids, and that initial Rx sets them up for addiction, according to a recent study sponsored by Pacira Pharaceuticals Inc. (Here’s what your doctor might not tell you about pain medication.) These facts are alarming, especially considering the nation’s current opioid addiction epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day due to an opioid overdose. As you might recall, the White House has declared the opioid crisis a national emergency.

“We now know that overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths,” the CDC said in a statement. The amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, the agency notes, yet there had not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported. Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have more than quadrupled since 1999.

The study, which looked at data from 600 private hospitals and over 78,000 patients, focused on those most affected by the opioid epidemic—women ages 40 to 59. This demographic has the highest death rate from opioid drugs, according to the report.

Part of the problem is that this group is likely to undergo surgeries—including for hernia, total knee replacement, colectomy, hysterectomy, total hip replacement, sleeve gastrectomy, and rotator cuff surgery—and surgery has been shown to be a “gateway to persistent opioid use and potential misuse,” according to the study authors. In fact, women prescribed painkillers after surgery were 40 percent more likely than men to become persistent opioid users, according to the findings. Surgery-related overprescribing results in 3.3 billion unused pills, which become available for misuse, per the study. In fact, nearly three million patients in 2016 who underwent surgery continued taking opioids beyond their post-surgical recovery period.

It’s not surprising that women are prescribed painkillers more often than men, because women and men experience pain differently. (Here are more medical conditions that strike the sexes differently.) According to, women are more sensitive to pain due to the fact that they have more nerve receptors to register the sensation. If you are going to take painkillers, especially opioids, here are 13 questions to ask your doctor before taking pain medication.

And before heading off the pharmacy to fill the prescription, consider trying these two mind-body techniques proven to treat pain.