Developmental Disorders Due to Prenatal Opioid Exposure Only Occur at High Doses: Study

The study does not address the other pregnancy risks linked to opioid use in previous research, such as birth defect risks and neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Despite known health risks associated with many users of opioid painkiller during pregnancy, the findings of a new study suggest that infants only appear to face a risk of developmental disorders following long-term use or exposure to high doses.

In findings published late last month in the medical journal The BMJ, South Korean researchers report that the risks of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other developmental disorders only increase slightly when pregnant women use opioids while pregnant, resulting in a minimally statistically significant increase. However, one the researchers says the finding is not clinically significant.

Researchers focused on whether opioids during pregnancy could increase the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders such as epilepsy, depressive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders, and other conditions. They used data from the National Health Insurance Service of South Korea from 2009 to 2017, including data from 3.1 million infants and mothers.

A total of 2.9 million children were identified with no prenatal opioid exposure, and that data was compared to information on 216,000 infants who had prenatal opioid exposure during pregnancy.

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Overall, the data indicates opioid exposure during pregnancy only resulted in a 7% increased risk of neuropsychiatric and mental disorders from opioid exposure during pregnancy. However, the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders was slightly elevated if the pregnant mother was exposed during the first trimester, took higher doses of opioids, or took them for longer than 60 days during pregnancy.

The exposure to opioids during pregnancy also modestly increased the child’s risk of suffering from mood disorders, ADHD, and intellectual disability.

“Opioid use during pregnancy was not associated with a substantial increase in the risk of neuropsychiatric disorders in the offspring,” the researchers concluded. “A slightly increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders was observed, but this should not be considered clinically meaningful given the observational nature of the study, and limited to high opioid dose, more than one opioid used, longer duration of exposure, opioid exposure during early pregnancy, and only to some neuropsychiatric disorders.”

Opioid Pregnancy Risks

While this latest study specifically addresses developmental disorders, health experts have identified numerous other reasons not to be careful with opioid use during pregnancy.

Opioid pregnancy use increases the risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS, which involves infants born with severe withdrawal symptoms from exposure to the addictive medications before birth. Exposure to opioids during pregnancy has also been linked to increased risks of preterm birth, birth defects, and can result in breathing and feeding problems for the child.

As a result of the widespread abuse of the drugs in recent years, the number of infants born with opioid withdrawal symptoms has skyrocketed over the past decade, with estimates indicating opioid addiction among pregnant women has increased more than 300%.

Prior research has also warned that using extremely strong opioid painkillers, like fentanyl, during pregnancy is also linked to an increased risk of birth defects like cleft palate and clubbed feet. Additionally, the rates of opioid withdrawal syndrome have skyrocketed in recent years, which may translate to increased rates of birth defects in American children.


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