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Pregnancy and prescription painkillers

Posted 9/9/2016 by LULU ZHAO, MD
Obstetrician/Gynecologist, UH MacDonald Women’s Hospital
Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Lulu Zhao. MD

Lulu Zhao, MD

Each year, millions of women are given prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet) for the treatment of both chronic and short-term conditions. But, a recent article in the journal Pediatrics now gives additional cause for pause for women using painkillers while pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant.

Pregnancy and prescription painkillers

For the study, researchers analyzed data from over 112,000 pregnant women in Tennessee. Infants born to mothers who took prescription painkillers in pregnancy were more likely to be born early or small. Some babies developed withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, difficulty feeding or breathing problems.

An increasingly common issue

Nearly 30 percent of mothers-to-be in the study had been prescribed a painkiller while pregnant. “When used appropriately, these medications can be an important part of the healing process,” says Lulu Zhao, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist at UH MacDonald Women’s Hospital who specializes in substance use disorders during pregnancy. “But women need to be made aware that there are risks, such as tolerance, accidental overdose, addiction and abuse.” Babies born to mothers who use painkillers may experience withdrawal symptoms – also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome – that require the baby to be carefully monitored and treated in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Advanced OB-GYN and neonatal care under one roof

For women who are unable to completely stop painkiller use during pregnancy, giving birth at a facility experienced in managing neonatal abstinence syndromeis critical.

The Barbara Peterson Ruhlman Women & Newborn Center at UH MacDonald Women’s Hospital – located steps away from the nationally ranked Quentin & Elisabeth Alexander Level III-c NICU at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital – provides seamless, family-centered care for high-risk pregnancies. This close proximity keeps mom and baby together, while ensuring immediate access to a multidisciplinary team committed to achieving the best possible outcomes.

How to protect your baby

If you suffer from pain and are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, talk with your health care provider about treatment options that minimize the use of prescription painkillers.

“Minimizing narcotic pain medications before and during pregnancy can decrease the risk of neonatal withdrawal,” says Dr. Zhao. “If you’re pregnant and taking narcotic painkillers, it’s important to talk with your doctor about your pain regimen. Together, you can discuss how to minimize your narcotic use in a way that’s safe for both you and your baby.”

If you aren’t taking pain medicine as directed or are using painkillers that weren’t prescribed for you, be frank with your doctor about it – if not for your sake, for your baby’s. Dr. Zhao advises, “Help exists for women struggling with narcotic misuse. Mothers who engage in treatment have a good chance of giving birth to healthy, happy babies.”

Not sure where to turn? UH MacDonald Women‘s Hospital offers compassionate support for opiate-dependent pregnant women to facilitate the best outcome for mom and baby. To learn more or schedule an appointment, call 216-844-3941 or visit

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