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Some Painkillers Tied to Certain Birth Defects in Study

Overall risk of problems like spina bifida called low, but experts advise women to discuss prescription opioid use with doctor
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Yazdy and her team used data collected during a 12-year span from telephone interviews with mothers within six months of childbirth. The interviews included detailed questions about medication use.

Mothers of 305 children born with neural tube defects were compared to those of more than 20,000 babies in two other groups -- one of healthy babies, and babies with other types of birth defects that weren't related to opioid use. "Periconceptual" opioid use was defined as any reported use in the two months after the last menstrual period.

Although the study found an association between the use of opioid painkillers during pregnancy and a higher risk of neural tube birth defects, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

Yazdy said women of reproductive age who feel they need treatment with opioid painkillers should communicate with their physicians to discern the pros and cons.

"It's really important that women talk with their health care provider about whether the benefits of treatment outweigh the possible risks," she said.

For her part, Dolan said alternative types of painkillers could be prescribed, although she acknowledged that sometimes "there are instances where the risk is worth taking."

"The more important question is: If something is preventable, why not prevent it?" she said. "The focus is what we can do to prevent any birth defect. That window of time around conception is one of the most critical times to be in the best condition possible."

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