The Risks of Painkillers for Pregnant Women

Recent reports show that physicians are prescribing opioid painkillers to expectant mothers in exceedingly high numbers, even though the risks and potential dangers to developing fetuses are presently unknown. Dangerous drug lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm take a closer look into this report and the possible repercussions of this troubling trend.

The new research analyzed over one million pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid, which is a federal program that covers medical expenses for about 45% of U.S. births. Researchers concluded that nearly 23% of pregnant women on Medicaid filled a prescription for an opioid painkiller in 2007, which is a marked increase from 2000 and the largest percentage to date. This amounts to one in five women using opioids during pregnancy.

Other research shows that among women using private health insurance, the amount that is prescribed an opioid painkiller holds steady between 12 and 14%. These figures are disconcerting for many reasons – first, because of how many women are so uproariously concerned about the effects of minor food and drug products on their pregnancies. Doctors note that they see many, many women who are worried about the effects a cup of coffee or piece of sushi may have on their pregnancy – but then turn around and pop an oxycodone.

The top-prescribed painkillers were codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, and women were typically prescribed for short periods, about a week or less. Prescription rates were highest in the mountain states (Utah, Idaho) and in the South, and lowest in the Northwest and Northeast. The difference between the regions was stark, and concerning to researchers.

It is hard to believe, one doctor noted, that the Southern pregnant women suffer from that much more pain than expectant mothers in the Northeast. Further reinforcing the concern, opioid prescribing rates varied widely not only between states and regions, but between counties as well. This suggests an overall lack of attention and diligence to potential abuses.

Learning From the Past

The risks pharmaceuticals pose to fetuses are never known until it is too late – less than 10% of all medications in the U.S. have been adequately studied for effects on fetuses. Take, for example, the recent litigation and devastating stories from women who took an SSRI antidepressant while pregnant.

Expectant mothers who took medications like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa and Lexapro were giving birth to children with heart defects, limb and muscle malformations, and other severe disorders. Study after study confirmed the increased risk for mothers on SSRIs, and lawsuits began to be filed in large numbers. Litigation against SSRI drug manufacturers is ongoing, and mothers concerned that their child’s birth defect was caused by a prescription should consider contacting a birth injury lawyer immediately.

Doctors are now seeing an increase in neural tube defects in children born to mothers taking opioids during pregnancy, particularly in first trimester use. Researchers note that opioid use in very early pregnancy translates to about double the risk of infant neural tube defects. Prolonged use of these drugs can also result in addiction in infancies, which is clinically referred to as neonatal abstinence syndrome.

In response to these troubling reports, the CDC recently established a Treating for Two initiative (website here), which aims to help doctors and patients treat ailments during, before and after pregnancy. The initiative aims to improve the health of mothers and children and prevent birth defects overall.

Some experts note that rising obesity rates may result in an increase in chronic back pain for pregnant women, which may help explain rising prescriptions; the most common ailments pregnant women on opioids suffer from are back and abdominal pain. Doctors note that there are many other alternative therapies, such as physical therapy or acupuncture, which would better help these ailments.

Generally, there needs to be more and better research into the best drugs for pregnant mothers. A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology noted that over the past three decades, prescription medicine use in pregnant women has increased more than 60%. Additionally, the amount of expectant mothers prescribed four or more medications has more than tripled.

Our team of birth injury attorneys will continue to report on reports, studies, trends and litigation numbers as information becomes available. We understand how devastating a birth injury can be, particularly if it was caused by an unstudied prescription drug. If you have any questions about potential birth injuries caused by pharmaceuticals, toxic exposure, or medical negligence, contact our firm now for a free legal consultation.

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