Prescription painkillers were the starting point of opioid addiction for more than 50% of female methadone clinic patients, according to research published in Biology of Sex Differences.

Study researchers also found many differences in demographics between men and women, leading to the conclusion that women need different addiction treatment approaches than men.

“Most methadone treatment is based on studies with few or no women at all. We found men and women who are addicted to opioids have very different demographics and health needs,” said Monica Bawor, a recent PhD neuroscience graduate of McMaster University in a press release. “We need to better reflect this in the treatment options that are available.”

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With increasing numbers of men and women developing opioid use disorder, there has been a need to re-examine gender differences in opioid dependence and treatment. To examine distinct factors affecting men and women, the researchers recruited 503 participants (266 men and 226 women) with a mean age of 38.3 years with opioid dependence disorder who were receiving methadone maintenance treatment. They collected data on demographics, treatment characteristics, psychiatric history, addiction severity, and drug use patterns.

One of the most notable findings was that more than half of women (52%) and about a third (38%) of men reported doctor-prescribed painkillers as their first contact with opioids.

The researchers also found other significant gender differences: women were found to have more physical and psychological health problems, more childcare responsibilities, and were more likely to have a family history of psychiatric illness compared with men.

Men were more likely to be working, and were also more likely to be cigarette smokers or cannabis users.