Addiction to prescription drugs, and particularly to the highly addictive opiate-class of pain medications like Oxycontin, Lortab, Hydrocodone and Percocet, has grown into a recognized epidemic in the United States. Tens of thousands of people are dying of prescription drug overdoses every year; in some states, the number of overdose deaths now tops the number of deaths related to car accidents. And pregnant women aren’t immune from becoming hooked on these powerfully addictive pills. It can happen to anyone.
Women who start or continue abusing these meds while pregnant are at risk of delivering a newborn who is also addicted, just as if the woman were abusing heroin. Even if they want help, many pregnant women avoid telling anyone, including their own doctor, that they are struggling with addiction because these women are fearful of being charged with a crime or of having their baby taken away at birth. However, a groundbreaking new study from researchers at Vanderbilt University offers hope to pregnant women who want help getting clean, and provides powerful evidence in favor of offering effective medical treatment to pregnant addicts, rather than threats or shame.
Currently, the medical standard of care for opiate-addicted pregnant women is methadone, a synthetic painkiller that is increasingly controversial due to its high risk for overdose. Additionally, many people associate methadone with addiction to “street drugs,” meaning that pregnant women may be less willing to take it and doctors may be less willing to prescribe it to a pregnant woman. But the new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, has conclusively proven that there is a better, safer medication that pregnant addicts can take in order to fight their cravings while at the same time protecting their babies from the risks of prenatal addiction.
The drug is called Buprenorphine, and is also known by the brand names Suboxone and Subutex or the nickname “bupe.” There’s plenty of clinical research and anecdotal evidence that Suboxone can play a critical role in helping opiate addicts get clean, whether they are pregnant or not. But what this new Vanderbilt study revealed is that pregnant addicts treated with Suboxone vs. Methadone also give birth to healthier babies who require shorter hospital stays and who show fewer signs of opiate withdrawal.
Vanderbilt’s Dr. Peter Martin says he hopes that this new study will encourage more doctors to prescribe Suboxone to pregnant women, and also help create medical consensus for insurance coverage for the expensive drug.
“The most important aspect of this study is I think it’s going to have an effect on how physicians practice,” Martin said. “It’s going to make people understand that buprenorphine might be very viable in this population, and this is something that wasn’t known before.”
Have you or someone you know ever struggled with an addiction during pregnancy? (Remember that you can comment here at Strollerderby anonymously.) Were you able to tell your doctor or midwife about your problem or did you try to hide it out of fear or shame? What is your opinion of offering pregnant opiate addicts medical treatment for their substance abuse problems as opposed to bringing criminal charges? Talk about pregnancy, addiction and treatment in the comments below.