A nurse recently asked a very important question that bears repeating: What effect does long-term use of pain pills have on pregnant women? She was concerned because of the increase in number of pregnant women who are taking pain pills on a long term basis based on previous surgeries, accidents or a history of chronic pain.

The most common “pain pills” prescribed are opiates which effectively eliminate or reduce pain but have a great tendency to be abused. Opioids are natural and synthetic type drugs that have the characteristics of morphine. It can only be obtained with a prescription and unfortunately physicians contribute to the problem of dependency and abuse through their lack of scrutiny regarding patient requests. My present home state of Florida has the unsavory distinction of being known as the country’s largest pill mill and it was reported that 80 percent of opiates were not dispensed by pharmacists but by physicians who dispense them from their offices. Consequently, the Florida legislators now prohibit physicians from dispensing opiates in their offices with rare exceptions.

Why are opiates or pain killers dangerous for pregnant women? Because they can cross the placenta and affect the fetus not to mention creating havoc for the mother through physical dependency. Opiates can cause breathing to diminish or stop altogether. It can also cause significant withdrawal of a newborn, including seizures if it has been exposed to large doses through its mother. There is also the risk of an overdose of both mother and newborn. 2.6% of pregnant mothers who used opioids during pregnancy will have babies with significant birth defects as opposed to 2% of babies who were not exposed to opioids. Behavioral problems and lack of intelligence has also been cited as potential side effects for children whose mother’s abused opioids. A woman taking opioids one month before and three months after conception increases the risk of having a baby with a heart defect.

Should pregnant women take painkillers? Only on a short term basis and opioids should be avoided at all costs. If a pregnant woman is addicted to pain pills, please consider enrolling in a methadone program where both mother and unborn child can be treated and monitored appropriately.