The risks of taking opioid painkillers during pregnancy aren't fully understood but that hasn't stopped doctors prescribing them for large numbers of pregnant women, an alarming new study in Obstetrics and Gynecology finds. Some 23% of Medicaid-enrolled pregnant women were prescribed opioids like codeine and hydrocodone in 2007, up from 18.5% in 2000, researchers say. An earlier study found that more than 12% of privately insured women were prescribed the strong painkillers every year between 2005 and 2011, despite emerging concerns about risks—including an apparent link between neural tube defects and opioid use in the first trimester.
The rate of opioid prescription varied hugely, with rates highest in the South and mountain states like Utah and lowest in the Northeast. "The regional variation really concerned me the most," a professor of pain medicine at Stanford University tells the New York Times. "It's hard to imagine that pregnant women in the South have all that much more pain than pregnant women in the Northeast." It's not clear what's behind the spike in the use of opioids and other prescription painkillers among pregnant women, though experts believe the rise in obesity has caused a rise in back problems during pregnancy. (Read more opioids stories.)