Surprising Number of Pregnant Women Use Prescription Pain Relievers

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No one denies that pregnancy can lead to some serious aches and pains. But how safe are pain relief medications when you're a mom-to-be? New questions are being raised about the use of certain pain medications after a recent Harvard-led study uncovered just how many women are being prescribed oxycodone, codeine and other "heavy duty" opioid pain relievers during pregnancy.

How many moms-to-be are we talking here? More than you might think.

According to data from over 530,000 women who gave birth sometime between 2005 and 2011, approximately 77,000 (14.4 percent) were prescribed opioids pain relievers at some point during their pregnancy.

Related: Drugs during pregnancy? What's safe

Women took the medications to deal with a wide variety of pain issues. Opioids were most frequently prescribed for pregnancy-related back pain (37 percent of women), followed by abdominal pain, migraine, joint pain and fibromyalgia. Commonly prescribed opioids included hydrocodone (6.8 percent), codeine (6.1 percent), oxycodone (2.0 percent) and propoxyphene (1.6 percent).

Are these medications safe for moms-to-be? Available information is mixed. Hydrocodone, for example, is classified by the FDA as pregnancy safety category C. This means that well-controlled studies in humans have not been conducted on the drug.

"The safety of using opioids to manage their pain remains unclear. Ultimately, we need more data to assess the risk/benefit ratio of prescribing these drugs to women and how it may affect their babies," said study author Brian Bateman, M.D., M.Sc., assistant professor, Harvard Medical School.

As for why so many women are taking pain medication, prescriptions for opioids in the United States have increased almost threefold in the general population, to more than 200 million between 1991 and 2009, according to the National Institutes of Health. Researchers found that opioid use by pregnant women in the U.S. is significantly higher than in Europe. The rate of opioid use also varied throughout the country with moms-to-be in southern states reporting the highest use of opioids and moms-to-be in New England and the rest of the northeast reporting the lowest use.

Health experts have already taken note of the increased use of opioids by U.S. moms. In 2012, ACOG issued a warning about the risk of developing dependence on oxycodone and other opioid drugs. The concern is that babies born to women addicted to opiate pain killers may themselves show signs of dependence on the drugs.

The safest bet for your pregnancy? No matter how infrequently you might take a medication for aches and pains, even a basic over-the-counter pain remedy, remember, it's always best to check with your doctor or midwife first.

For the top 10 questions about medication during pregnancy, visit BabyZone!

-By Jacqueline Tourville

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