Half of new mothers receive opioids – and thousands are still filling prescriptions years later

Tens of thousands of new mothers get hooked on opioids every year, study finds

  • Around 2 percent of the 3.9 million women who give birth every year get hooked on opioids 
  • That amounts to 78,000 women, according to a new University of Michigan study
  • The researchers found little difference between prescriptions for C-sections and vaginal deliveries 

Around 2 percent of women get hooked on opioids prescribed to them after childbirth, according to a new study.

With roughly 3.9 million births a year, that would amount to about 78,000 women. 

The findings, published today in JAMA Network Open, are based on a nationally-representative sample of 300,000 women who gave birth between 2008 and 2016, analyzed by University of Michigan researchers. 

They found that close to 50 percent of women received a prescription for highly-addictive painkillers in that period – 2 percent of whom became persistent users. 

It is a staggering figure given the rate of women delivering annually. 

And while rates of prescriptions have slowed slightly, rates of persistent use have not. 

Half of new mothers receive opioids - and thousands of them are still filling prescriptions years later

Half of new mothers receive opioids – and thousands of them are still filling prescriptions years later

A key issue, the researchers say, is that guidelines for prescribing are vague, and, as is now clear, there is a deep-rooted culture of dishing out pills to patients – be it due to pressure from Big Pharma, or to keep patients from finding themselves short out-of-hours. 

But the team, led by OB/GYN Alex Peahl, MD, point to Europe to put the US approach to opioids in context. 

‘European women ‘almost never’ receive an opioid prescription at discharge after vaginal birth or cesarean birth,’ they write, ‘suggesting current practices in the United States represent overprescribing.’ 

What’s more, there was little difference in opioid prescriptions for women who had delivered via C-section (75 percent of births recorded) or vaginal delivery, suggesting a broad-brush approach to prescription that has little to do with the specific patient. 

The researchers, looking at prescriptions filled, could not confirm how many opioid pills were taken by women, but they warned any left untouched are no less concerning: they could be used – intentionally or accidentally – by anyone else in the household. 

Curbing prescriptions by using other measures is the best way to curb the needless deaths that have plagued the US since prescription rates reached epidemic levels around 2013, they say.    

‘Pain after birth is like a mountain: once you’re at the peak, it is harder to get down,’ Dr Peahl said in a news release. 

‘Using non-narcotic pain medications before opioids can help better manage your pain by preventing you from reaching that peak.’ 


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