Speed Reads


Opioid painkiller prescriptions up dramatically for pregnant women


New research shows that the number of pregnant women being prescribed opioid painkillers is skyrocketing, despite the fact that doctors are unsure of the risks to developing fetuses.

A study published last week in Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that in 2007 nearly 23 percent of the 1.1 million pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid filled an opioid prescription, up 18.5 percent from 2000. The study's lead author, Rishi J. Desai at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, expected to "see some increase in trend, but not this magnitude," he said. "One in five women using opioids during pregnancy is definitely surprising."

The opioids most often prescribed were codeine and hydrocodone, and most of the women took the drugs for less than a week. Doctors understand why opioids are prescribed for pain caused by chronic conditions like sickle cell anemia, but some suggest that prescribing acetaminophen would make more sense in most or all situations, especially for the back pains common during pregnancy.

In February, a study of 500,000 women with private insurance found that 14 percent were prescribed opioids at least once during their pregnancy. These numbers are worrying to Dr. Joshua A. Copel, a professor or obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine. "To hear that there's such a high use of narcotics in pregnancy when I see so many women who worry about a cup of coffee seems incongruous," he told The New York Times.