Use of Opioid Pain Meds During Pregnancy Raises Birth Defect Risk

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Maternal use of prescription opioid pain relievers during early pregnancy or just prior to conception has been linked to an increased risk of birth defects. According to a new U.S. government report, expectant mothers who take painkillers such as codeine, hydrocodone or oxycodone (Oxycontin) put their newborns at greater risk of certain birth defects. The details of the report can be found in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the report is based on an ongoing population study of the use of the synthetic narcotics having opiate-like activities among women one month prior to their becoming pregnant or during the early stages of pregnancy. Findings of the study have indicated an association between use of the drugs and a modest risk of congenital heart defects, as well as a heightened risk for spina bifida, hydrocephaly, congenital glaucoma and gastroschisis.

In a news release, CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden cautioned, “Women who are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, should know there are risks associated with using prescription painkillers.” He then warned that these women “should only take medications that are essential, in consultation with their health care provider.”

The analysis was based on the National Birth Defects Prevention Study (1997 to 2005) including data gathered from across 10 states. CDC researchers found that between 2 percent and 3 percent of mothers queried took prescription opioid pain relievers either just prior to becoming pregnant or early in their pregnancy. (No evaluation of illicit use of the drugs was assessed). Among these women, the risk of their newborn having a serious heart defect known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome was nearly twice that of women who did not receive these drugs.

The risks are affected by factors such as the amount of medication taken, whether other medications are taken in addition to the opioid drugs, at what stage of pregnancy the drugs are taken, and other health conditions of the mother-to-be. In addition, the report authors pointed out that the risks associated with the opioid drug use in any one pregnancy remains small.

According to lead author Cheryl S. Broussard, of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, “It’s important to acknowledge that although there is an increased risk for some types of major birth defects from an exposure to opioid analgesics, that absolute risk for any individual woman is relatively modest.” She added, “However, with very serious and life-threatening birth defects like hypoplastic left heart syndrome, the prevention of even a small number of cases is very important,” and also advised that women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant talk to their doctor prior to taking any medication.

Congenital heart defects are among the most common types of birth defects, affecting almost 40,000 infants in the U.S. annually, and claiming the lives of many infants during their first year. Those who survive often require countless surgeries and lengthy hospitalizations, as well as a lifetime of treatment for disabilities related to the condition.

Making healthy choices for your own body provides your best chance for a healthy pregnancy. There are alternatives to prescription medications for many of the ailments that accompany becoming a mother-to-be including aches, pains and morning sickness. In addition, eating a healthy diet and getting a sufficient amount of exercise can keep you and baby both in balance.
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