By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, Feb. 11, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- There was a 15-fold increase in the number of newborns experiencing opioid withdrawal in the Canadian province of Ontario between 1992 and 2011, researchers report.
Opioids, such as OxyContin, are powerful narcotic painkillers that carry a high risk of abuse and addiction, the study authors noted.
The incidence of opioid withdrawal among Ontario newborns rose from 0.28 per 1,000 live births to a little more than 4 per 1,000 over the study period, according to the findings published Feb. 11 in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).
Most of the babies were born to mothers who had been legally prescribed a narcotic painkiller before and during pregnancy, study author Dr. Suzanne Turner, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said in a journal news release.
As their due date approached, many of those women switched from prescription narcotic painkillers such as codeine or OxyContin to methadone. In Canada, methadone is prescribed almost exclusively to people addicted to painkillers.
"Our findings suggest that most pregnant women treated with methadone over this time period were addicted to prescription [narcotic painkillers], not illegal drugs such as heroin, which is the common perception," Turner said.
"While the women's original prescriptions for [narcotic painkillers] may have been inappropriate, the fact that many of these women are being switched to methadone is a good thing," she said.
Babies born to mothers who misuse narcotic painkillers are more likely to be premature, have low birth weights and have higher death rates. But babies born to women who switch from narcotic painkillers to methadone are more likely to be full term and have higher birth weights, the researchers said.
The investigators also found that expectant mothers who were prescribed narcotic painkillers within 100 days of delivery were more likely to deliver by Cesarean section and their babies had longer hospital stays and more outpatient doctor visits.
While opioid withdrawal in newborns is treatable, it can require time in a neonatal intensive care unit, which can harm mother-child bonding, the researchers noted.
All women of childbearing age should be told that any use of narcotic painkillers during pregnancy can cause opioid withdrawal in babies, Turner said.