Despite questions about the potential risks of narcotics use during pregnancy, doctors continue to prescribe the pain medications to more than 14% of pregnant women, according to new research.
In a study published last week in the medical journal Anesthesiology (PDF), Harvard researchers note that women in the U.S. are much more likely to be prescribed a narcotic painkiller than their counterparts in Europe. However, there is variability even inside the U.S., with pregnant women in the South more likely to be prescribed narcotics than women in the northeastern part of the country.
The higher levels of use come amid continuing concerns about the potential side effects of narcotics on unborn children, as the risks are not fully understood. Researchers indicate that it is currently hard to determine whether the pain relief benefits outweigh the potential risks.
“Nearly all women experience some pain during pregnancy,” according to a press release statement by Dr. Brian Bateman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and the study author. “However, 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.”
Bateman and his fellow researchers looked at data on more than half a million pregnancies in the U.S, finding that 14.4% of them were given an opioid during their pregnancy. Just under two percent were given prescriptions more than once, and the largest number of prescriptions occured during their third trimester.
The most commonly prescribed drug was hydrocodone, followed by codeine and then OxyContin. Back pain was the most common reason cited for the prescriptions.
The findings come several months after a study sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was published that found a link between opioid pain killers and birth defects. Researchers found that women who use the powerful painkillers may face a 2.2-fold increased risk of having a child with a birth defect.
Researchers in that earlier study determined that side effects of pregnancy use of Oxycontin, Vicodin and other opioids was associated with an overall modest increase in the risk of neural tube defects, but did not make a causal connection.
The report also comes as federal agencies attempt to crack down on an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse gripping the nation. Last year, the FDA reclassified hydrocodone to make it a more controlled substance. It is usually sold in combination with acetaminophen in the drug Vicodin.
In October 2013, the FDA announced a plan to reclassify hydrocodone-based painkillers as Schedule II drugs. The move will limit how many hydrocodone-based pills doctors can prescribe to patients and would require stricter storage and handling requirements.
The reclassification’s goal is to prevent theft and abuse of the pills, which is one of a number of ways federal regulators are trying to combat what some have called a painkiller abuse epidemic in the U.S.