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Using Painkillers When Pregnant

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Prescription painkillers, or opioids, are commonly used to treat pain. Opioid painkillers include drugs such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine, and morphine. In addition to their inclusion in the many opioid analgesic formulations, opioids are also found in some prescription cough medicines and may be prescribed to pregnant women.1

If you are taking prescription painkillers when pregnant, it’s important to speak with your doctor about potential health effects to you and your baby. If you feel that you have a problem with prescription opioid use, talk to your doctor so you can find safe treatment.

How Do Opioids Work?

Opioids exert their painkilling effects by binding to opioid receptors in the brain.11 For many people, the pain relief experienced after taking opioids is often accompanied with euphoric or rewarding sensations that promote continued use. However, opioids can also have potentially serious health effects. Taking doses that are too high or taking opioids too frequently can result in respiratory depression, coma, and overdose.11

Prescription Painkiller Use During Pregnancy

The rates of prescription painkiller use and abuse are rising in the United States, and pregnant women are no exception. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28% of women who were of reproductive age (15-44 years old) and who had private insurance filled a prescription written by a healthcare provider for an opioid medication.1

The number is significantly higher in the Medicaid population, with 39% of women who were of reproductive age filling a prescription.2 With more women of reproductive age taking these drugs than ever before, using prescription painkillers when pregnant has become a major concern in the medical community. The potential effects of opioids on a pregnant mother and her developing baby can be dangerous and it’s important to know more about opioids before taking them.1

What Are the Potential Effects of Opioids On a Fetus?

Research continues on how taking painkillers when pregnant may affect the fetus. While there isn’t conclusive evidence about their effects, considerable research points to the potential for more complications in babies whose mothers took opioid painkillers while pregnant.

A population-based study led by the CDC found a link between birth defects and opioid painkillers taken during pregnancy. The CDC study found an association between the following conditions in babies and opioid painkillers used by the mother:1

In this study, researchers noted a significant increase in the number of heart defects a baby had, including hypoplastic left heart syndrome.1 Hypoplastic left heart syndrome is a condition in which the left side of the heart doesn’t develop correctly.

One study found that when women used opioid painkillers right before they got pregnant or during the first trimester of their pregnancy, they were twice as likely to have a baby born with a heart defect.1

While findings are mixed regarding women who take prescribed doses of opioids during pregnancy, women who have an untreated opioid use disorder may be putting their fetus at higher risk. This may be associated with a lack of prenatal care and other potentially high-risk activities associated with their opioid use disorder.3

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

One of the potential effects of using opioids when pregnant is the potential for developing neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS can occur when a pregnant woman takes opioids, such as:5

  • Codeine.
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet).
  • Methadone.
  • Hydrocodone (Lortab, Norco, Vicodin).

When a pregnant woman uses substances such as opioid painkillers, the drugs can pass through her placenta. The placenta connects the developing fetus to its mother. This can result in the baby developing a dependency to opioids along with the mother. If a pregnant woman uses drugs during the week or so before she delivers, there could be increased risk that her baby will be born with a dependence on the drug at birth. After birth, the newborn’s supply of drugs is abruptly cut off, potentially causing withdrawal in the newborn.5

The severity of a baby’s withdrawal depends on several factors, including:5

  • How much of the drug the mother used and for how long.
  • How well the body clears the drug out of its system.
  • What type of opioid the mother used.
  • Whether the baby was born early.

NAS symptoms can begin 1-3 days after the baby is born. If doctors believe that the baby may be at risk for more complications, they may have the baby stay at the hospital for up to a week for medical supervision and monitoring.

Symptoms of NAS might include:5

  • Blotchy skin coloring (mottling).
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Stuffy nose and/or sneezing.
  • Sweating.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Excessive crying or high-pitched crying.
  • Irritability.
  • Sleep problems.

  • Excessive sucking.
  • Fever.
  • Hyperactive reflexes.
  • Hypertonicity (pathologically increased muscle tone).
  • Trembling (tremors).
  • Seizures.
  • Convulsions.
  • Poor feeding.
  • Slow weight gain.

Treating NAS

The recommended treatment for NAS will depend on what type of drug the mother used, the infant’s health, and whether the baby was born full-term or preterm. Babies with NAS are usually fussy, so doctors may ask the parents to use “TLC”, or tender loving care, to help the baby calm down. Strategies may include:5

  • Gently rocking the baby back and forth.
  • Swaddling the baby.
  • Turning down the lights and minimizing noise around the baby.

When babies are born with severe NAS, they may need medicines such as morphine and methadone to help treat their withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, a second medicine such as clonidine may be added to manage troublesome symptoms. Doctors may also recommend breastfeeding if the mother is using methadone or buprenorphine.5

A baby with NAS may require treatment anywhere from 1 week to 6 months, depending on severity. After that, the baby may continue needing special care and attention.5

Is it Safe to Take Prescription Opioids During Pregnancy?

Due to the unknown safety of opioid painkillers for pregnant women, a woman and her doctor should always thoroughly discuss the risks and benefits of taking opioids to manage pain during pregnancy.

Many women experience pain during pregnancy, such as low back pain, pelvic pain, or migraines. Although doctors may prescribe opioids to manage acute pain during pregnancy, the American Pain Society warns that the potential risks should be carefully considered prior to prescribing opioid therapy to a pregnant woman.6

There are women who are prescribed opioids during pregnancy with 7% of women reporting use while pregnant. Unfortunately, this same study from the CDC reported that 5% of those women were misusing opioids.7

Most prescription opioids are labeled under category C by the FDA. This categorization indicates that there is evidence of potential harm to the fetus from animal studies—and that there is not enough evidence from human studies—to conclude that it is safe. However, oxycodone is classified in category B, which means that there is no evidence of harm to the fetus from animal studies but, as with category C, there is not enough evidence from human studies to deem it safe.8

Quitting Painkillers While Pregnant

Opioid addictions are, in part, characterized by physical dependence and tolerance. When a person becomes tolerant to opioid painkillers they will need higher doses to feel the same effects. Physical dependence is a common result of continued use. Once a person develops a physical dependence, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using, or drastically reduce their opioid use.11

If a pregnant woman abruptly stops taking opioid painkillers, it could result in unwanted health consequences, including:9

  • Preterm labor.
  • Fetal distress.
  • Fetal death.

There are options to help with withdrawal from opioids, including medications that can help with reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.9 It’s currently recommended that women struggling with opioid use disorder receive pharmacotherapy, or treatment with medication, which is associated with lower relapse rates than supervised withdrawal alone.3

Methadone is the most researched drug for use during pregnancy.10 Although methadone is not formally sanctioned by the FDA for treatment of opioid dependence during pregnancy, it is currently the standard of care and recommended by many doctors for opioid-dependent women who are pregnant.10

Methadone maintenance therapy has a long history of use, dating back to the late 1960s. Buprenorphine maintenance therapy has been used to treat opioid dependence among pregnant women since the mid-2000s. Buprenorphine is prescribed in an outpatient setting, while methadone maintenance requires a woman to go to a clinic daily to receive her dose. More studies are needed in order to properly understand the risks and benefits of these two therapies.4

Given that the use of prescription opioids continues to be a concern, it is important for women to understand the risks of taking these medicines while they are pregnant. If you are pregnant, talk to your health care provider about the medications you are taking to prevent potential harm to your developing fetus.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

If you or a loved one is facing an addiction to opioids during pregnancy, there are options for treatment. The most important thing to do is tell your doctor about your opioid use. Disclosing your use of painkillers when pregnant is an important step to ensuring your baby’s health and wellbeing.

Depending on your level of opioid dependence, your doctor may recommend inpatient or outpatient treatment.

pregnant woman meeting with doctor

Inpatient programs are residential facilities where individuals are required to live at the facility for the duration of the program. Programs vary in length depending on the level of care assessed when you enter treatment, but typically last for more than 30 days.

Inpatient programs provide 24/7 supervision and will typically include some combination of:

Some facilities may also offer aftercare services such as postpartum support. This can be extremely helpful in preventing relapse after leaving the facility.

It is important for treatment programs—either inpatient or outpatient—to address underlying issues of dependence with behavioral treatment. Treatment types may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of intervention helps you to develop coping mechanisms for when you have a craving or urge to use opioids. CBT has been shown to be effective in preventing relapse.12
  • Contingency management: This type of intervention uses positive reinforcement like rewards and incentives. Your therapist may reward you with a gift card, voucher, or special privilege if you reach a treatment goal such as attending counseling sessions or staying drug-free.13

Outpatient programs offer more flexibility and are a great option for mothers with obligations outside of treatment such as school, childcare, or work. Unlike inpatient treatment, you can live at home while you receive care. Generally, outpatient programs are less expensive than inpatient programs. Since therapy is at the crux of outpatient treatment, most programs offer group therapy sessions several hours each week.

Before considering going through withdrawal, detox, and/or rehab for opioid addiction, it is best to first talk to your doctor about your current opioid use. Your doctor can complete an assessment and direct you to the proper resources.

If you or a loved one is struggling with use of prescription painkillers when pregnant and are looking for treatment, give the caring admissions navigators at AAC a call today at We are available 24/7 to help you find a facility that fits your needs to help ensure the health and wellbeing of you and your baby.

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Senior Medical Editor
Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating him to seek a clinical psychiatry preceptorship at the San Diego VA Hospital’s Inpatient Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program. In his post-graduate clinical work, Dr. Thomas later applied the tenets he learned to help guide his therapeutic approach with many patients in need of substance treatment. In his current capacity as Senior Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Dr. Thomas, works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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