Prescription Opium Linked to Birth Defects

July 24, 2014

Even though there have been several expert suggestions that opium use during pregnancy has the potential to lead to birth defects, a new study reveals that physicians are still prescribing the pain medication in exorbitant numbers to pregnant women.

According to the May 2014 Issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, over a million pregnant women were prescribed opoid during 2007 alone.  The amount of prescriptions filled were also an increase over 18% from 2000, when a previous study on the narcotic was conducted. 

These numbers only reflect women who were enrolled in the Medicaid program. In a different study published by the journal Anesthesiology, results show that around 14% of pregnant women who are privately insured are prescribed an opoid medication at least once during the duration of pregnancy. 

Both studies show that the most widely-prescribed opoid medications are hydrocodone, codeine, and oxycodone. Most pregnant women were prescribed the medications, on average, for a week or less, although some women were given a prescription that lasted longer. The most common reasons for prescribing the medications to mothers-to-be include:

  • Discomfort due to posture changes
  • Pelvic dysfunctions
  • Weight gain
  • Abdominal and back pain

Per Martha M. Werler, a professor of epieiomology at the Slone Epidemiology Center, these findings are alarming and disturbing. Werler’s research on opiod medications and birth defects have shown that there is a heightened risk of infants developing neural tube defects if their mothers take the drug, especially during the first trimester.

In fact, Werler’s 2013 study on neural tube defects indicates that women who had infants with neural tube defects reported that they used an opiod medication 3.9% more than women who had infants without the birth defect. 

“Our study suggests that women of childbearing age—not just those who are pregnant—should refrain from opioid use because neural tube defects develop in the first weeks of gestation, when pregnancy may not be recognized. 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,” Werler stated.

In an attempt to educate women on the dangers of taking medication while pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently launched the :”Treating for Two: Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy” initiative, which offers advice and guidance to both mothers and clinicians in regards to taking medication during pregnancy.

Meanwhile, Werler suggests that  women seek out less harmful, over-the-counter medication for pain needs, which are considered more safe than opiods, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. However, Werler also warns that although these medications are not associated with addiction like opiods are, more research needs to be conducted to ascertain the potential risks of birth defects. In addition, most over-the-counter medication will not offer the same pain relief as prescription-based medications.