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Opioid Painkillers Linked to Neural Tube Birth Defects

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September 18, 2013 — The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has published a study linking the use of opioid painkillers during pregnancy, including OxyContin and Vicodin, to a 2.2-fold increased risk of neural tube birth defects (spina bifida, anencephaly, iniencephaly, and encephalocele).

The conclusions of the study were based on data from over 20,000 women who had a baby between 1998 and 2010 and participated in the Slone Epidemiology Center Birth Defects Study. Researchers called the women within 6 months of delivery and asked them about their use of medications during pregnancy.

The researchers compared data on 13,405 women who had a baby with a neural tube birth defect and 7,125 women who had a baby without congenital malformations. The researchers concluded:

“A higher percentage of mothers of offsprings with neural tube defects (3.9%) reported using an opioid medication than mothers of offsprings in the nonmalformed control group (1.6%).

OxyContin and Neural Tube Birth Defects

Birth defects of the neural tube affect the brain, spinal cord, and spine. They occur when the neural tube fails to close. These birth defects occur very early in the first trimester, when most women are not aware of a pregnancy.

The most popular opioid painkillers include OxyContin and Vicodin. The Prescribing Information for OxyContin includes warnings about the risk of severe, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms in fetuses exposed to the drugs during the third trimester. However, the label does not warn about the risk of neural tube defects from first trimester exposure.

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