Pregnancy + Pain Pills = Disaster
The prevalence of women taking opioid painkillers during pregnancy is on the rise. In fact, the number of women who take short-acting opioids, think Vicodin or Percocet, while pregnant has doubled over the past fifteen years.
Using painkillers during pregnancy brings with it a number of potentially harmful implications for the unborn child. Women on drugs like OxyContin or Roxicodone are more likely to give birth prematurely, have an underweight baby, or have a child born with developmental issues and neonatal abstinence syndrome (physical withdrawals). Smoking while pregnant, a somewhat common trait among addicts, only increases these risks.
As if that wasn’t scary enough, there’s more alarming news coming from a recent Tennessee study of expecting mothers. Dr. Stephen Patrick, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University and the study’s lead author, found that almost 30% of pregnant women used opioids.
Dr. Patrick went on to say,
“I was surprised by the number of women prescribed opioid pain relievers in pregnancy…I was also surprised by how commonly women smoked in pregnancy, and how much that increased the risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome among those who also used opioid pain relievers in pregnancy” (Science Times).
So what exactly is going on? Why are more and more women taking opioids during pregnancy? More importantly, what can we do to reverse this alarming trend?
New Statistics on Pregnant Women & Pills
Dr. Patrick’s team analyzed over 100,000 pregnant women’s Tennessee Medicaid medical records from the years 2009 to 2011. Their findings? Approximately 28% of pregnant women filled a painkiller prescription.
This comes at a time when opioids are being routinely overprescribed. Consider that in a nine-year period, 2000 to 2009, painkiller prescriptions quadrupled. Consider that during these nine-years the number of children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome tripled. There’s a clear correlation between the two.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Well it gets worse. Remember how Dr. Patrick warned against smoking while pregnant? Well, his study also found that 42% of women taking opioids while pregnant smoked. 42%! That’s almost half of all the women taking painkillers while pregnant! Something needs to be done and now.
It also appears that, according to researchers, the more cigarettes these women smoke, the more likely their baby is to experience neonatal abstinence syndrome.
There is, however, some light in an otherwise bleak situation. Dr. Patrick had the following to say about situations where it may be acceptable, even preferable, to take opioids during pregnancy,
“For women with opioid dependency, we know that use of maintenance opioids like methadone decrease rates of preterm birth compared to heroin. For these women, neonatal abstinence syndrome may occur in their infants, but it is much better than the alternative, which is preterm birth” (Science Times).
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What Can We Do to Help?
There are two things to remember about this latest study before tackling any type of solution. First, the study was only conducted in Tennessee. Second, it only examined pregnant women receiving Medicaid. Both of these limit the potential reach of the study, as well as the data uncovered.
Okay, removing those from the picture, there’s still a serious problem going on! There are ever increasing numbers of women taking dangerous drugs while pregnant. What can you and I do to help stem this tide?
Well, first we need to change this culture of euphoria. What exactly do I mean? Simple – the current state of the American psyche is that of pleasure seeking. People abuse drugs and alcohol because they like how these chemicals make them feel. To quote a famous book, “Men and women drink essentially because they like the effects produced by alcohol” (Alcoholics Anonymous).
So, before anything else can be changed, we need to address this culture of pleasure seeking. Then, we need to address another rampant problem. I’m talking, of course, about the over-prescription of medication, narcotic and otherwise, in America.
To fix this, we need to start looking beyond the ingrained idea that a pill or syrup can fix our problems. We need to start looking for the long-term solution to aches and pains, rather than the quick fix.
In fact, I believe our current culture of euphoria and quick fix medical attitude are tied together. Think about it, American’s love prescription meds and there are none they love more than opioids. There’s a reason we consume 99% of the world’s supply of hydrocodone (Vicodin’s chemical name).
To put it another way, we only need to change one thing to start seeing a decline in the number of pregnant women taking painkillers. What’s that one thing, you ask? Everything.
This may sound overwhelming, but it’s easier than we think. After all, conversations like the one we’re having right now are the first step. A critical examination of how and why so many pregnant women are taking painkillers is the first step to effecting real and lasting change.