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Study Shows Link Between Birth Defects and Painkiller Use During Pregnancy

Opioid Use and Birth Defects

According to a recent article in BU Today, a high number of doctors prescribe opioid painkillers to expecting mothers. A new study in the journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology suggests that using opioid painkillers during pregnancy can increase the risk of serious birth defects.

How many women are using opioids during pregnancy? One study found that about 23 percent of expecting mothers who are enrolled in Medicaid filled an opioid, or narcotic, prescription in 2007. That number is up from 18.5 percent in 2000,”and it is the largest usage rate of opioid prescriptions among pregnant women to date. Other studies have found that about 14 percent of all expecting mothers who are insured privately (i.e., who are not enrolled in Medicaid) have used opioids at least once while pregnant.

Why are women taking opioids? Doctors often prescribe painkillers to pregnant women to ease discomfort during pregnancy that are caused by changes in posture, extensive weight gain, and pelvic floor dysfunction which can result in muscle pain and discomfort. In a smaller number of cases, pregnant women took opioids to treat more serious ailments.

According to Martha M. Werler, a senior epidemiologist at the Slone Epidemiology Center, using opioids during the first trimester can lead to “neural tube defects, which are malformations of the brain or spine, such as spina bifida.” These are some of the most common types of birth defects, and they occur in more than 300,000 births every year.

Werler conducted a study last year that showed a connection between neural tube defects and opioid use among pregnant mothers. In her study, she found that “mothers who had babies with neural tube defects reported more use of opioids early in their pregnancies than mothers of children without such congenital defects.”

Opioid Dangers: Facts and Statistics

Opioids can be extremely dangerous narcotics. In addition to causing severe birth defects, opioids have been linked to other harmful medical conditions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids are some of the most common prescription medications used to relieve pain.

Some of the most commonly prescribed opioids, including those used by pregnant women, include:

  • Hydrocodone (which we often know as Vicodin);
  • Oxycodone (which we often know as OxyContin or Percocet);
  • Morphine; and
  • Codeine.

While most pregnant women only take opioids for a short period of time, NIDA emphasizes that “even a single large dose” can cause severe repercussions, including addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 75 percent of all prescription drug overdoses are caused by opioid pain relievers. Opioids have also been implicated in nearly 15,000 deaths from overdoses each year, and they led to nearly 500,000 visits to the emergency room in 2009.

It is important to know whether it is safe to take a prescription medication if you are pregnant, and it is even more important to be aware of potentially hazardous side effects. The CDC has a new guidance website called “Treating for Two” that can provide information to medical professionals and pregnant women about taking prescriptions while expecting.

Legal Recourse:

If your baby suffered a serious birth defect because of a prescription medication, you may be able to file a claim for compensation. Your medical provider may be considered negligent if he or she deviated from the standard of care by prescribing a drug that is known to be harmful to a fetus during your pregnancy. Contact a birth injury lawyer to learn more about your rights.

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