More Pregnant Women Using Opioids Before Realizing They're Pregnant

By McCarton Ackerman 01/23/15

Some women are causing harm to their unknown babies without even knowing it.

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Most pregnant women take heed to not smoke or drink during their pregnancy, but a new analysis has found that many are using prescription painkillers before realizing they’re pregnant and causing potential harm to their unborn babies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 39% of women ages 15-44 with Medicaid, and 28% with private insurance filled opioid prescriptions each year from 2008-2012. Birth defects typically occur when these medications take place between the fourth and tenth weeks.

Because roughly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, not to mention that opioids are the single largest cause of overdose fatalities in the U.S. with more than 16,000 per year, the findings are causing concern among medical professionals.

“I do see opioid use pretty frequently in my high-risk practice,” said Dr. Neil S. Seligman, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Upstate New York. “Patients often don't have their first prenatal care appointment until the late first (trimester) or early second trimester, at which point the fetus is no longer susceptible to birth defects.”

An estimated 13,500 babies are born each year with opioid withdrawal symptoms that can include seizures, breathing problems, tremors, and dehydration. Opioid use during pregnancy can also cause defects in a baby’s heart, brain, and spine. In the case of heroin use during pregnancy, roughly 60-70% of newborns exposed to the drug required an average of 30 days of withdrawal treatment.

However, there are no long-term consequences to these withdrawal symptoms if they receive early treatment. Seligman also noted that women who used a single prescription for a short time were “not a concern” and that it was only chronic, long-term use of opioids that sparked these effects.

But many pregnant women addicted to opioids or other substances are often unwilling to receive treatment for these issues. Data from the 2013 Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) found that the number of pregnant women admitted to drug rehab facilities ranged from 4.4-4.8% between 2000 and 2010.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.