Deaths from Painkillers Rise Sharply Among Women

Deaths from Painkillers Rise Sharply Among Women

The number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers has soared among American women in the past decade, in part due to the over-prescribing of opioid pain medications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC said in a new Vital Signs report that nearly 48,000 women died from painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010. During that time, the number of fatal overdoses among women rose by 400 percent, compared to 265 percent in men.

bigstock-Woman-Suicide-1396448“Prescription drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in women. Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying from overdoses at rates we have never seen before.” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD. “The increase in opiate overdoses and opiate overdose deaths is directly proportional to the increase in prescribing of painkillers.”

While men are still more likely to die from a prescription opiate overdose, the gap between men and women has been shrinking. The CDC says about 18 women die every day from a prescription painkiller overdose, and women are four times more likely to die from a prescribed opioid than from cocaine and heroin combined. In 2010, over 200,000 women were treated in hospital emergency rooms for opioid misuse or abuse.

Various reasons were cited for the rising death toll among women. Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, are prescribed painkillers at higher rates and higher doses, and are more likely to use them longer.

“Prescribing trends for opioids have increased more sharply for women than for men, and thus it is unsurprising that we are seeing more opioid risks for women, including overdose from medical prescriptions,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, a clinical associate professor in the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Studies show that girls and women are more likely to be taking prescription drugs of any kind — including opioids — and they are more likely to be taking multiple prescription drugs than are boys and men.”

Darnall says physicians should be more aware of the risks associated with prescribing opioid painkillers to women.

“The increase in unintentional opioid deaths related to methadone, a long acting opioid, as well as to the dangerous combination of opioids and benzodiazepines suggests a need for improved education of prescribers,” said Darnall. “We must also be very mindful of the risks of opioids that exist when taken exactly as prescribed, particularly if the physician is not well informed. Dangerous combinations of medications are routinely prescribed and we must do better at physician education in order to help them reduce patient risks.”

Dr. Frieden went even further, saying opioids are overprescribed – injecting himself into a long running debate over whether the Food and Drug Administration should further restrict access to opioids.

Under current prescription guidelines most opioids are indicated for treatment of moderate to severe pain. The FDA is being petitioned  to change the guidelines so that opioids are only indicated for severe pain.

“These are dangerous medications. They should be reserved for situations like severe cancer pain,” said Frieden. “In many other situations, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Prescribing an opiate may be condemning a patient to lifelong addiction and life threatening complications.”

Frieden was asked if opioids should not be used to treat “moderate” pain.

“In the data we have reviewed, we have not seen a clear indication of these drugs for other conditions,” the CDC director said. “What we really want to emphasize is the risks and the benefits. These are risky drugs and there are often other medications and other therapies, like physical therapy, exercise, cognitive therapy, that can be very important in addressing chronic pain.”

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

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LaVeeda Krumm

I have been a responsible pain person for years. These headlines should say it is a mixture of drugs plus alcohol. Alcohol is the killer. Next Valium. This stuff stays in your system a lot longer then other drugs. This makes me so mad. Plus who does talk about the people that do comit suicides from poor pain care. I know myself if I can’t get my medications that I need to live a some what normal life that a bullet might be my last pain medication.


Of course medicine has an agenda when it comes to opioids- quick easy profits without having doctors to have education in treatments like acupuncture, dry needling, low level lasers, frequency specific microcurrent. Already Dr Portenoy- a prominent pain doctors indicated he was mistaken about the addictively potential of opioids and pain organizations are under federal investigation for promoting opioid use. The most frequently mentioned barrier in pain care is lack of provider education. And don’t doctors fight against legislation like NYS SB 2947 that would require education in pain care. Its medicine that continues its moral and mental laziness toward people in pain and until medicines culture is radically reformed their will continue to be an escalation of failure in pain care.


I am sorry to hear that approximately 18 women die a day because of opioid overdose. I would like to know the comparison to how many die from suicide because of pain!!!!! How many of these 18 would intentionally kill themselves in any way possible?

How many women are killed by damaged livers and kidneys, heart attacks, etc that are caused from NSAIDs each year?

I bet the rate is higher for chronic pain sufferers who die from other treatment than that of opioids! I have taken opioids for chronic pain for years and have never thought of overdosing. I have thought of ending it all when not taking anything from chronic pain! Why don’t people understand this??? It makes me very irate and scared to death that I will not get relief from this pain because of ignorance by people who never have ever suffered a chronic pain!!

Atm I have a wonderful pain doctor who totally understands! Thank God for him. I thank God for him daily!


Agree with Kaylee - I want to know how many of these accidental deaths were from people not taking them as directed, mixing them with alcohol or other drugs and how many people weren’t even prescribed them but bought or stole them from someone else.

I have severe RA. A Rheumatologist has stated that the pain associated with severe RA is comparable to bone cancer. So people with bone cancer can take pain meds, that’s fine, but people with severe RA have to just suck it up?

This article just made me sad and disappointed in doctors who don’t understand patients.

Janice Reynolds

Believing anything the CDC says in relationship to pain and/or opioids is foolish. Their previous “study” was so poorly done and so slanted it was embarrassing (you know the one I am talking about). This is a poorly done study that doesn’t differentiate from suicides (women are more likely to use drugs), accidental overdose, using opioids illegally, and deaths that occurred because opioids were taken with other medications and/or alcohol. Someone with an agenda tries unsuccessful to prove their position. Unfortunately the media buys into it.


What many fail to understand about these “alarming” statistics is that many of these deaths occur when the person is combining these opiates with alcohol, other prescription drugs, street drugs or they are just taking way more than have been prescribed. Also many of these deaths occur with people obtaining them illegally and using them in ways other than what is intended, such as snorting, smoking or shooting. It’s still considered an accidental death, even though the person taking the medication was behaving irresponsibly and dangerously.

The death toll from these pain killers among people who take them exactly as directed by their healthcare professional is almost non existent. They are blurring the facts and making it near impossible for people with non-cancer related chronic pain to get proper pain relief.


How many of these are suicides because of the DEA’s war on pain patients? I’m sure it’s over 50% of these deaths!