We’re accustomed to hearing about America’s opioid epidemic as if it’s monolithic, but there are striking differences in how opioid use disorder affects men and women.

Women are more likely to use prescription opioids than men, for example. Their death rates from prescription opioids and heroin are rising much faster than the death rates for men, though more men still die of both. Women become addicted faster than men, and their living situations may complicate treatment approaches.

Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, interim executive associate dean and associate dean for research at the WSU College of Nursing, gave an overview of those gender differences and other data related to opioid use disorder at WSU Health Sciences’ Inland Northwest Research Symposium on April 23. Barbosa-Leiker’s primary research investigates gender differences in opioid use, and her research has demonstrated sex differences in the measurement of opioid withdrawal, relapse while in treatment, and predictors of relapse.

She noted that there’s not much data exploring sex differences in opioid use disorder, but shared early results from an ongoing study on medication-assisted treatment.

It found that women with opioid use disorder are younger than men with the disorder; are less likely to be employed; are more likely to depend on someone for financial support; and are more likely to live with someone who also has a drug problem.

“Patient characteristics are very different from men to women,” she said. “For a woman, for example, being threatened if she didn’t continue to use heroin (with her partner) is a common story.”

Compared to men, women with opioid use disorder experience more mental health conditions like anxiety and major depression, and more physical and sexual abuse.

Inland Northwest Research Symposium honors:

Also at the research symposium, four WSU Health Sciences students were honored for their work:

  • Ashley Ingiosi
    Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine
    Astroglial contributions to sleep and sleep homeostasis
  • Lillian Skeiky
    Sleep and Performance Research Center
    Associations of TNFαGene Polymorphism with Resilience to Sleep Deprivation and Caffeine Sensitivity
  • Irina Teslenko
    College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences
    Glutathion-S-Transferases Represent a Novel Pathway Contributing to the Metabolic Clearance of the Anti‑Cancer Agent and Aromatase Inhibitor, Exemestane
  • Jaclyn Thatcher
    College of Nursing
    Group Medical Visits: An Innovative Solution for Chronic Pain Management in a Rural Clinic

“There’s so much going on in these women’s lives, and we’re asking them to stop using a substance that might be numbing the pain,” Barbosa-Leiker said.

These are all factors that need to be considered by treatment providers, she added. For example, a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse might be reluctant to attend group treatment if both men and women are included. Or a woman with few resources may not be able to move away from a partner who uses drugs, making it harder for her to stop.

When it comes to pregnancy, the data is especially slim. But Barbosa-Leiker noted that only a third of pregnant women admitted to a hospital with opioid use disorder receive medication-assisted treatment such as methadone.

“This is the standard of care,” she said. “I would argue that this is probably the most vulnerable population in the nation and we are not giving them the care they need.”

The good news is that there are studies underway to identify barriers to effective treatment, and collaborative approaches among hospitals and treatment providers in Eastern Washington.