Prescribing Narcotics to Pregnant Women: Is it Safe?

Pregnant women are being prescribed opioid painkillers—a narcotic!—even though the risks to the developing fetus are still pretty unclear. Findings from two different studies show that as many as 23 percent of pregnant women may be taking opioids (most commonly for back or abdominal pain). Meanwhile, pregnancy is a time when women tend to be super-cautious in pretty much every other area of their pregnant lives, giving up alcoholcaffeine, sushi, soft cheeses and cold cuts. Um, which sounds like a bigger health risk to baby: a heavy-duty narcotic or a piece of fish?

As reported in the New York Times, “in both studies, the opioids most prescribed during pregnancy were codeine and hydrocodone. Women usually took the drugs for a week or less; however, just over 2 percent of women in both studies took them for longer periods.” Some doctors and scientists are now speaking up because they are seeing a connection between first trimester use of opioids and neural tube defects. According to the Times article:

“Mothers of children with neural tube defects reported more early opioid use—3.9 percent—than mothers of children without such congenital defects—1.6 percent.”

“Opioid use in very early pregnancy is associated with an approximate doubling the risk of neural tube defects,” said Martha M. Werler, the senior author and a professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. “About half of pregnancies are not planned, so that’s a big chunk of women who may not be thinking about possible risks associated with their behavior.”

Particularly at the end of pregnancy, prolonged use of opioids can also lead to addiction in infants, a problem known as “neonatal abstinence syndrome.” A 2012 study in JAMA suggested the incidence of babies born addicted is on the rise.

It sounds like doctors are just blindly overprescribing to me. In the past 30 years, the use of prescription medicine by pregnant women in their first trimester has increased more than 60 percent, while the use of four or more medications has more than tripled, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

I don’t mean to sound insensitive to those in real and chronic pain, but women have been having babies since the beginning of time and general pregnancy pains likely haven’t gotten any worse. So do so many moms-to-be really need to be taking these super-strong painkillers? I would rather live with the annoying back pain—a short-term problem—than know that something I took while pregnant contributed to a life-long health problem for my child. But according to research, that may just be me.

TELL US: Do you think doctors should be prescribing narcotics to pregnant women?

Image of pregnant woman courtesy of Shutterstock.

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