One in Five Pregnant Women Take Opioid Painkillers

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Pregnancy and pillsAnd what doctors are prescribing as an alternative is just as dangerous. Action Alert!

We’ve told you before about the dangers of prescription opioid painkillers: drugs like oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) are incredibly addictive, and cause more deaths a year than heroin and cocaine combined.

Alarmingly, a full 20% of pregnant women now use these prescription painkillers, according to the New York Times. What’s worse, not all women are being prescribed opioids equally: those with Medicaid, as well as those who live in the south, are being prescribed painkillers during pregnancy at much higher rates: 23% of women on Medicaid, compared to 14% of women with private insurance, are being prescribed opioids.

Researchers aren’t sure about the reason for these prescribing discrepancies. However, they clearly demonstrate that opioid use during pregnancy is being influenced by other factors than necessity. For instance, there’s a strong overlap between areas where pregnant women are prescribed opioids at high rates and where opioid abuse runs rampant.

The effects of opioid use during pregnancy haven’t been thoroughly studied, but initial research shows that it can lead to neural tube defects (remember, the FDA is currently trying to ban folate—which can prevent such defects—from dietary supplements). Take this potential for severe birth defects, and throw in the fact that doctors are seeing a surge in infants born addicted to painkillers, and ask yourself why painkillers aren’t on the “banned” list for pregnant women.

Unfortunately, this nonsensical prescribing behavior aligns with how the FDA classifies what drugs are “safe” for pregnancy. The agency sorts drugs into five categories:

  • Category A: There is adequate evidence that there is no risk to fetuses.
  • Category B: Animal studies have failed to show a risk to fetuses; no well-controlled studies have been completed in humans.
  • Category C: Animal studies have shown a risk to fetuses; there are no well-controlled studies in humans. However, “potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women.”
  • Category D: There is evidence of fetal risk, but “potential benefits may warrant use of the drug in pregnant women.”
  • Category X: There is too much evidence of risk to prescribe these drugs to pregnant women.

Note that in two out of the five categories, there is no evidence at all on the impact of these drugs during pregnancy. The truth is, fewer than 10% of FDA-approved medications have sufficient data to determine whether or not they’re safe for expectant mothers.

The result of this skewed system is that doctors are prescribing drugs for which there is no classification at all—simply because the risks have yet to be declared by the FDA.

For example, as an alternative to opioids, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve), doctors often prescribe acetaminophen. You may already know about the general dangers of acetaminophen, but new research suggests that acetaminophen during pregnancy may promote severe ADHD in children.

As reported by Dr. Mercola, a study in JAMA Pediatrics (a journal of the American Medical Association)found that the children of women who took acetaminophen while pregnant had a 30% increased risk of ADHD during the first seven years of life, as well as a 37% increased risk of hyperkinetic disorder (HKD), a severe form of ADHD. The more acetaminophen used during pregnancy, the higher the child’s risk of ADHD-related problems.

And don’t forget that many prescription painkillers contain a combination of opioids and acetaminophen, putting babies doubly at risk.

Pain and discomfort during pregnancy is inevitable. In our culture of instant gratification, and in a time where doctors spend less and less time with patients, it may be tempting to take a “magic pill” to feel better. But remember that there are many natural and alternative ways to manage pain, including massage (especially useful during pregnancy and especially during labor), acupuncture, psychical therapy, and meditation.

As always, talk to your integrative practitioner before trying a new health regimen, all the more so if you’re pregnant.

Action Alert! Although acetaminophen has no FDA classification for use in pregnant women, it is the go-to over-the-counter painkiller recommended for expectant mothers. Given the link between acetaminophen and ADHD, this drug should be classified as Category D (there is evidence of fetal risk, but it may still be recommended in urgent cases). Write to the FDA today, and ask them to warn expecting mothers about the dangers of acetaminophen!

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  • A loyal supporter

    As much as I am normally on board with ANH, I think your latests action alerts on painkillers are misguided. I completely agree with you on the dangers and concerns, both to mothers and to their babies. However, every chronic or debilitating illness is not cured by natural medicine, as much as we wish it were true. There are conditions that cause such severe and chronic pain, that these powerful, if potentially dangerous, medicines are warranted. I can’t get behind reclassifying drugs as you are suggesting. There ARE many natural and alternative ways to manage pain but they do not work for everyone nor for every disease.

    • Can’t agree more, when pain is beyond tolerance, opioids are necessary without acetaminophen.

  • Any drug is toxic and poison. When will the public and doctors realize they are giving people harmful and injurious substances? How can they not affect an unborn child in the system that is being poisoned? This is common sense not to take a poison. When I grew up, they put skull and cross bones on toxic substances. This needs to be added to all mind and mood altering prescriptions. The rest of the story is that they are addictive and this creates real problems for the person when they grow up from birth defects, mental impairment, and their own addictions besides the mother’s addiction to the pills.

  • Alternatives to drugs. Dr F R Klenner brought woman to term birthing 300 perfect babies. see the internet.

    • I believe Dr. Eisenstein of Elk Grove Illinois has done the same.

  • Jo Ann Koepke

    I do not think the author of this article has any conception of what it is like to
    be in extremely excruciating pain. Wanting relief has nothing to do with instant
    gratification.

    • Can’t agree more. When pain is beyond tolerance narcotics are the only acute choice.
      Unfortunately, the #1 prescribed product is Tylenol#3 that contains acetaminophen.
      There are some with a nsaid other than acetaminophen which is a better choice based on the fact that
      chronic use of acetaminophen is risky. About half the liver transplants are due to acetaminophen…and deaths from overdosing are under reported.

    • Kath

      Then be aware you may likely be sacrificing the health of your baby.

  • I can cry for the children who are not born whole due to toxins consumed during pregnancy by the mother. Knowingly or Unknowningly. It is up to our Medical leaders in both public and private institutions to become real leaders and speak out on the importance of the mother being nutrient rich with Vitamin D, folate and other important nutrients to deliver a healthy infant. When the mother is nutrient deficient and consumes trace toxins such as artificial sweetners and much more and acetaminophen, the risk of having a child with autism goes up dramatically. There are 15 studies that point to acetaminophen as contributing to the development of autism. The studies indicate a toxin called gliotoxin is created that the infant absorbs from the mother. Wake up America!. We can’t afford to have 100,000 autistic children born each year because of poor prenatal, and natal treatment!! My website has articles concerning this issue. nutritionexercise.us and much more. We make our teenagers go to driving school, but there are no schools that are mandatory for mothers to be!

    • Sue

      I agree; the article isn’t clear about why the women are taking prescription opiods, but they’re often paired with acetaminophen, and I often wonder if that drug isn’t more harmful than the opiod, provided the person isn’t taking the meds for an addiction, but most people do not become addicted when taking the medicine for a temporary pain problem, and chronic pain is more common in older people. I also recently heard about the autism connection to the acetaminophen. I wish the media would get this straight about opiods. Not to mention combining acetaminophen with alcohol is dangerous, and lots of people in this country drink.

  • Kelsey

    Seriously? you are incredibly misguided. I was given painkillers while pregnant because I had kidney stones coming out. You don’t get heavy duty painkillers for pregnancy discomfort . . . you get them for excruciating pain and you are only allowed to take them for the first trimester.

    • alice

      Opioids were permitted in any stage of pregnancy but as with any medication, otc or prescribed, moderation is key. Your body will become dependant on Opioids if you are careless with how often and how much u take. The more u take, the more u need to achieve effective pain relief. Ideally Opioids are not a long term solution for anyone pregnant or not.

  • Ronice Jones

    Working at an AOD treatment facility, we have seen an increase in pregnant women addicted to opiates (heroin) and in order to treat them and not cause undue stress on the baby, they are prescribed a partial opiate to block opiate receptors in the brain and stop craving so they will not feel the need to continue to use. This is considered harm reduction. If a pregnant woman (or any other person) is using heroin, they do not know exactly what is in the drug when they are getting it off the street. The increase in prescriptions for opiates for pregnant women, could be in part because of the epidemic of heroin addiction in this country.

  • Ronice Jones

    Working at an AOD treatment facility, we have seen an increase of pregnant women using opiates, generally heroin. We have an MAT (medically assisted treatment) clinic and the doctor prescribes a partial opiate during detox, and afterward, that binds to opiate receptors in the brain to stop cravings and reduce harm to the patient and fetus. The increase in pregnant women being prescribed opiates could in part be caused by the heroin epidemic in this country.

  • Acetaminophen depletes glutathione the essential antioxidant.
    Opiates also depletes glutathione. There is synergy here and it is not good….
    You tube Acetaminophen Autism.