Painkillers Pose Risks in Pregnancy

A new study suggests that over 14% of women are prescribed narcotics at some point in their pregnancy, despite the fact that the drugs may be associated with an elevated risk of birth defects.

Prescription rates of opioid painkillers (narcotics) have grown dramatically in the past decade. Between 1991 and 2001, more than 200 million prescriptions for narcotics like Vicodin and Oxycotin were administered, according to the National Institute of Health. This boom in opioid painkillers does not exclude pregnant women, according to a study published online in the journal Anesthesiology.

Lead author of the study, Brian Batemen, MD, MSc, explained that the safety of using opioids in pregnancy remains "unclear" and that more data is needed to asses the effects that opioids have on unborn babies.

Earlier research from the US (conducted in 1959-1965) and later studies from Sweden and Norway did not find an increased risk of birth defects from opioid prescriptions. However, more recent research raises questions about those initial findings. The 1997-2005 US National Birth Defects Prevention Study discovered that codeine and other opioids may increase the risk of some birth defects including atrial and ventricular septal defects, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, spina bifida, and gastrochisis. Long-term use of opioids may lead to neonatal dependency and withdrawal symptoms in the first few days of a newborn's life.

Bateman found that the most common reasons for opioid prescriptions in pregnant women were back pain (37%), abdominal pain, migraine, joint pain, and fibromyalgia. Instead of taking unknown risks of opioids, many pregnant women experience relief of their musculoskeletal symptoms through drug-free treatments like chiropractic. Studies suggest that chiropractic can significantly reduce back pain and pelvic pain during pregnancy.


American Society of Anesthesiologists. (2014, February 14). More than 14 percent of pregnant women prescribed opioids, study says. Medical News Today. Retrieved from