The Dangers of Opioid Use in Pregnancy

Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

January 4, 2023

Table of Contents

Opioid use in pregnancy can adversely affect mothers and their babies.

Regrettably, opioids and pregnancy are closely intertwined. Research indicates that between 2010 and 2017, there was a 131% increase in women who used opioids during pregnancy.

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2019 data from CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) shows that 7% of women self-reported using prescription opioid painkillers during pregnancy. Among those women, 20% self-reported misusing opioids in one of the following ways:

  • By obtaining opioids from an alternative source to a healthcare provider.
  • By using opioids for non-medical reasons.

There are three ways in which pregnant women may use opioids:

  1. Using prescription opioids as directed.
  2. Misusing or abusing prescription opioids.
  3. Abusing illicit opioids like heroin or fentanyl.

The sustained use of any prescription opioids or illicit narcotics like heroin can lead to the development of OUD (opioid use disorder). OUD is a chronic and relapsing brain condition characterized by the compulsive consumption of opioids regardless of negative outcomes. While there is no cure for opioid use disorder, the condition responds positively to evidence-based treatment with MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy, and counselling.

What Are the Dangers of Using Prescription Opioids?

Physicians may prescribe prescription opioid painkillers to manage pain associated with injuries, surgeries, and dental work. Opioids are also commonly prescribed for pregnant women.

These are some of the most common prescription opioids:

  • Codeine
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Meperidine
  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Tramadol

All opioids are highly effective for the short-term management of pain. That said, these medications are classified as Schedule II controlled substances for their strong abuse and addiction potential.

Taking prescription opioids during pregnancy can bring about serious problems for your newborn. You should consult your healthcare provider to explore alternatives to opioids that may give you a healthier pregnancy.

The primary dangers of using opioids are opioid overdose and opioid addiction (opioid use disorder).

If you take prescription opioids as directed, you should not be in danger of overdosing. CDC data show that although opioids are the main driver of drug overdoses in the United States, this is primarily due to synthetic opioids like illicitly manufactured fentanyl rather than prescription painkillers.

Those who take prescription opioids nevertheless run the risk of developing opioid use disorder. In addition to relieving pain, opioid also induce euphoria. Some people start using opioid painkillers as directed and then begin abusing the medication for its euphoric high.

Any sustained use of opioids causes tolerance to form, diminishing the effects of the medication. This often prompts people to take more opioids or more frequent doses, an abusive pattern of consumption that will accelerate the formation of physical dependence.

When you become dependent on opioids, you will experience intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if you discontinue use. Opioid withdrawal can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening, making it advisable to engage with a supervised medical detox program.

These dangers of opioid use exist for pregnant women, but opioid use during pregnancy can also trigger a wide range of health complications for mother and baby.

What Are the Dangers of Opioid Use During Pregnancy?

Using prescription opioids during pregnancy can impact your health and the health of your baby.

If you are currently using opioids and you are not pregnant, use effective birth control to prevent accidental pregnancy and seek professional treatment for opioid abuse.

Some of the most common complications associated with using opioids in pregnancy include:

  • NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome)
  • Preeclampsia
  • Placental abruption
  • Birth defects
  • Stillbirth or miscarriage
  • Premature birth or preterm labor
  • Problems with baby’s growth
  • SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)

NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome)

NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome) occurs if a baby is exposed to a drug like opioids in utero before birth. The baby will experience immediate opioid withdrawal after birth.

Most cases of NAS are caused by women who take opioid during pregnancy. NAS can trigger serious adverse outcomes for the baby, including low birth weight and breathing problems.

Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a serious condition that sometimes occurs directly after pregnancy or during the 20th week of pregnancy. The condition is characterized by high blood pressure, changes in vision, protein in the urine, and severe headaches.

High blood pressure (hypertension) can be especially damaging for pregnant women, stressing the heart and causing problems throughout the pregnancy.

Placental abruption

Placental abruption is a condition in which the placenta becomes separated from the uterine wall before birth. This can starve the baby of nutrients and oxygen in the womb.

Birth defects

Birth defects commonly associated with opioid use in pregnancy include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Gastroschisis
  • NTDs (neural tube defects) like spina bifida

Stillbirth or miscarriage

Stillbirth occurs if the baby dies in the bomb after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while miscarriage involves the death of a baby before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Premature birth or preterm labor

If labor and birth occur too early – before the 37th week of pregnancy – babies will be susceptible to health complications in later life.

Using opioids during pregnancy can cause PROM (premature rupture of membranes), with the sac surrounding the baby bursting before the mother goes into labor.

Problems with baby’s growth

Fetal growth restriction occurs if a baby fails to gain the weight they should before birth.

If the baby is born weighing 5 pounds, 7 ounces or less, this is considered a low birthweight.

SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)

SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) involves the unexplained death of a baby less than one year old. The condition normally happens when a baby is asleep. Babies born to mothers who report using opioids are at heightened risk for SIDS.

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder During Pregnancy

It is inadvisable to abruptly stop using opioids during pregnancy. This can trigger the following negative outcomes:

  • Fetal distress
  • Preterm labor
  • Miscarriage

Clinical recommendations from ACOG (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) for pregnant women recommend MAT (medication-assisted treatment) with buprenorphine or methadone rather than supervised medical withdrawal. We can help you achieve this here at Renaissance Recovery Center.

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder at Renaissance Recovery Center

Maybe you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, but you are concerned about your use of prescription opioids. Perhaps you are already addicted to opioids and ready to become opioid-free before embarking on your pregnancy. All addictions are unique, and we can help you address the physical and psychological components of opioid use disorder here at Renaissance Recovery in Orange County.

Studies show that intensive outpatient treatment is just as effective as residential rehab for treating most mild and moderate addictions. This means you can confidently engage with our outpatient programs without needing to leave your family behind and head to residential rehab.

Choose from the following programs:

  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • Dual diagnosis treatment program (for co-occurring disorders)
  • Remote rehab program

All Renaissance Recovery treatment programs for opioid use disorders draw from the following combination of holistic therapies and evidence-based interventions:

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Individual counselling
  • Group counseling
  • Psychotherapy (CBT or DBT)
  • Family therapy
  • Experiential adventure therapy

Whether you step down to a less intensive form of treatment or transition directly into daily living, you will leave Renaissance with a relapse prevention plan and access to our alumni program. We’re here to help you enjoy the healthiest possible pregnancy without becoming dependent on opioids. Contact admissions by calling 866.330.9449.

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