Study: More Pregnant Women Are Filling Narcotic Prescriptions

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

A recent study published last week in Obstetrics and Gynecology unveiled startling evidence as to how sharply the number of opioid painkillers prescribed to pregnant women is rising. The New York Times highlighted the study, which said that out of 1.1 million pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid nationally, nearly 23 percent filled an opioid prescription in 2007, up from 18.5 percent in 2000. That number reflects the largest to date amount of opioid prescriptions among pregnant women, which has the potential to be alarming, considering the fact that risks to the developing fetus are still largely unknown.

According to The Times, the study was conducted by lead author Rishi J. Desai, a research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and he said that although he expected the number of prescriptions for pregnant women to rise, “one in five women using opioids during pregnancy is definitely surprising.” His study’s results support many health experts’ belief that pregnant or not, Americans are simply pain-averse, and that is why many are now deciding to take opioids during pregnancy even though the drugs could potentially put developing fetuses at risk.

In addition, it’s also not just those relying on Medicaid who choose to fill the opioid prescriptions. The Times highlighted Sunday that while Medicaid covers the medical expenses for 45 percent of births in the United States, those privately insured are also taking the drugs. A study of 500,000 privately insured women conducted in February found that 14 percent were dispensed opioid painkillers at least once during pregnancy, and health experts continue to show concern about the rising numbers.

Many are also surprised at the reality that so many women now show varying degrees of concern about their pregnancies. While recent studies have highlighted that more women are taking opioids while pregnant, there are still many women who refuse to drink coffee and eat sushi, certain cheeses, deli meat, and other foods on account of fears over how the foods and drinks could affect their babies. Dr. Joshua A. Copel, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., explained via The New York Times, “To hear that there’s such a high use of narcotics in pregnancy when I see so many women who worry about a cup of coffee seems incongruous.”

According to The Times, both of the studies conducted for Medicaid and privately insured women found that the most popular opioids prescribed during pregnancy were codeine and hydrocodone. The research found that women usually took the drugs for a week or less, but just over 2 percent of female subjects in both studies took them for longer periods. In addition, the most recent study published this week unveiled that certain areas in the U.S. showed significantly higher rates of opioid prescriptions than others, and this is interesting to recognize, as the regional variation could elucidate how pregnant women in some places deal with pain differently than their cross-country counterparts. The Times reported that rates of opioid prescriptions were highest in the South, and lowest in the Northeast. Dr. Pamela Flood, a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at Stanford University, responded to the statistics with the assertion, “It’s hard to imagine that pregnant women in the South have all that much more pain than pregnant women in the Northeast.”

Now, some health experts maintain the belief that opioid misuse and abuse should be more closely monitored, especially in the case of pregnant women, as abuse of these drugs could have devastating effects on developing fetuses. While some doctors and scientists believe there is an association between first semester use of opioids and certain conditions, such as neural tube defects, others are leery to draw that connection. Whatever the case, however, it’s clear that opioid use among pregnant women is on the rise and may only go up from here.

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