Opioid Prescription Rates in Men and Women: What Is Behind the Disparity?

According to the results of a study of data from a nationally representative sample, women are significantly more likely to be prescribed opioids than men.  However, this may be explained by several mitigating factors, the researchers noted.

While previous studies have suggested that women are more likely to be prescribed opioid analgesics, the reasons behind these different rates remain uncertain, according to the researchers.

Their study involved 106,233 participants from the 2005-2015 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, of whom 9387 women and 6579 men who received opioid prescriptions. The female/male incidence rate ratio (IRR) was 1.35 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.24–1.44), but was lower following adjustment for sociodemographics (1.23; 95% CI 1.14–1.31) and health status-related factors (1.12; 95% CI 1.05–1.19), and was no longer significant following adjustment for number of nonnarcotic prescriptions (0.97; 95% CI 0.91–1.03).

“In this nationally representative sample of US adults, we found that women were not more likely than men to receive opioid prescriptions after adjusting for their higher rates of nonopioid-related health care utilization. The observed attenuation suggests that prior findings from surveillance data have merely reflected general sex-related differences in sociodemographics, health status, and overall health care utilization,” the researchers concluded. “While it remains possible that there is something unique about women and the treatment of pain, our analysis found no evidence that this was driving their higher rates of prescription opioids. The findings point to the need for ongoing work to better understand the relationships that may drive increased risk for women and opioid prescriptions.”

—Michael Potts


Agnoli A, Jerant A, Franks P. Prescription opioids and patient sex: a national cross-sectional study. Published online June 17, 2020. J. Women's Health. DOI:10.1089/jwh.2019.8234