Study: Nearly half of new mothers in U.S. prescribed opioids from 2008-2016

Chris Clancy

September 6, 2019

In a new study that could change the frequency of doctors prescribing opioid-based painkillers to pregnant women and new mothers, nearly 50 percent of new mothers in the last decade were found to have received a prescription for opioid-based painkillers either before or after delivery.

Among those women receiving an opioid prescription, between 1 and 2 percent were still filling their opioid prescriptions one year after giving birth. Those who delivered vaginally were found to be persistent opioid users at a rate of 1.7 percent, while those who had delivered via C-section were found to be persistent opioid users at a slightly higher 2.2 percent rate.

“These results suggest that maternity care clinicians can potentially decrease new persistent opioid use among women after either vaginal or cesarean delivery through judicious opioid prescribing,” the study concluded.

Opioids and Pregnancy

About the study

Headed by University of Michigan obstetrician and researcher Alex Friedman Peahl, MD, “Rates of New Persistent Opioid Use After Vaginal or Cesarean Birth Among U.S. Women” explores the trend of doctors prescribing opioids to women on private insurance plans who had not received a prescription for opioids for one year before giving birth, and who suffered no major complications one year after birth. Peahl and her team examined the medical records of more than 300,000 such women between 2008 and 2016.

“For women who delivered vaginally, one-quarter received opioid prescriptions, although current guidelines call for a step-wise approach to pain management, starting with non-narcotic medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen,” said Peahl. “One percent of vaginal birth mothers were still receiving opioids months later.”

On the positive side, opioid prescriptions for women after giving birth saw an overall decline, suggesting that doctors were made aware of the dangers of extended opioid use.

“It remains uncertain which policy levers will best minimize both opioid and patient harms” the study said, in a section titled, Need for Better Guidelines. “Still, with increasing regulation, maternity care clinicians may be forced to consider alternative approaches to pain control even before society guidelines dictate change.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, more than any previous year on record. An estimated 40 percent of those deaths involved prescription opioids. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the U.S., 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids in 2016.

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