Second Skin by Esther de Jongh
Second Skin. Photo by Esther de Jongh /

After a recent surgery, my mother was given a prescription for 20 hydrocodone pills. Twenty. She took a grand total of four. Her story isn’t singular, but it was her experience that got me especially interested in the opioid crisis and the dangers that we, as women, are facing every day. Stories of people who start taking prescription painkillers given to them by their doctors are all over the news, along with reports that many of these people become addicted to painkillers and continue taking them long after they no longer need them.

What’s more, according to estimates, upwards of 50,000 people will lose their lives to opioid overdose in 2018. If that sounds like a shockingly high number, it’s because it is—opioid use in the U.S. is the highest in the world. So high, in fact, that it’s been deemed a national crisis. Even more surprisingly, new research shows that women might be more prone to addiction than men. According to these studies, there are some marked differences in the ways that men and women experience addiction, and these differences could require more varied types of treatment.

A Difference in Pain

It’s a running joke that women are better able to handle pain than men because of women’s ability to survive childbirth. In reality, though, science suggests that women experience pain more intensely than men do. Researchers at Stanford Hospital pored over information from more than 11,000 different patients with more than 250 different medical conditions and found that on average, women rated their pain score up to 20 percent higher than men.

While men also experience issues with prescription painkiller overdose, the problem is nearly twice as bad for women.

Although pain is difficult to measure because it’s so subjective, research shows that women tend to experience pain more frequently and more intensely than men do, across a number of different medical conditions. But does the way that women experience pain necessarily mean that they are more likely to become addicted to opioids?

The short answer appears to be yes. The number of women dying from prescription painkiller overdose has increased by 400 percent in the last 15 years, while the number of men dying from the same cause in the same period has increased by only 265 percent. While men also experience issues with prescription painkiller overdose, the problem is nearly twice as bad for women and understanding how that problem varies by gender could be the key to improving treatment across the board.

Other Underlying Causes of Addiction

The growing number of women who live with mental illnesses may also contribute to the number who become addicted to opioids and other illegal substances. According to research carried out by Oxford University, women are roughly 75 percent more likely than men to experience depression.

Anxiety disorders are also a more common problem in women, with women being 60 percent more likely than men to report an anxiety disorder. This diagnosis, where addiction coexists with a mental illness, is known as comorbidity. Individuals living with mental illnesses tend to be more likely to self-medicate, either with prescription medication or illegal substances. While addiction on its own can be tough to treat, a dual diagnosis can present new challenges.

Science is showing that addiction may be a larger issue for women than it is for men.

Addiction is a growing problem, and science is showing that it may be a larger issue for women than it is for men. While the subject requires more study, these early findings certainly suggest that the future of addiction diagnosis and treatment may need to take a more personalized approach. In my mom’s case, a potentially dangerous situation could have been prevented simply by prescribing her fewer pills upfront and following up along the way to see how she was doing. There are many holistic options out there that are safer but require more action on the part of the physician than just handing out a prescription.

My mom doesn’t like to put a lot of chemicals in her system to begin with, which is why she didn’t take many of the pain pills she was prescribed. It was totally unnecessary for her to have access to so many dangerous pills, and a person more willing to do whatever they deem necessary to feel better would be at an even higher risk of abusing all those pills and becoming addicted.

If we want to help put an end to opioid addiction, we need to stop being afraid to advocate for our own health, and for the health of our family members. But more importantly, physicians and healthcare experts need to take a more personalized approach to treatment—both when treating patients for pain conditions and when addressing the issue of addiction.

My mom is fine and recovering well from her surgery, but many others aren’t as lucky. It wouldn’t have taken much to send her spiraling down into the dark place that so many others are unfortunately in right now.

About the photographer: Esther de Jongh is a portrait photographer capturing authentic moments she observes of the people close to her.