How Pregnant Women Can Safely Use Pain Relievers

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Pregnancy and discomfort often go hand in hand. But when discomfort progresses to pain, what medications can expectant mothers use for relief? Luckily, safe painkiller options exist, but as with everything else during pregnancy, diligence is necessary. Furthermore, you should discuss all medications that you take—including over-the-counter (OTC) drugs—with your OB-GYN.

Pain medications, also called analgesics, can be obtained either over-the-counter or by prescription. Naturally, prescription-strength painkillers are usually more potent than OTCs, but they also present more potential dangers to the developing fetus. OTC analgesics, however, are not risk-free. Certain OTC prescription painkillers increase the likelihood of birth defects or complications during labor and delivery.

The Use of OTC Painkillers by Pregnant Women

Here's a breakdown of pain relievers, along with guidelines for those safe to use and those that should be avoided during pregnancy. Again, be sure to consult with your physician before taking any medication during pregnancy, whether OTC or prescription strength.

Over-the-counter painkillers come in two categories, based on their active ingredient:

  • Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is considered safe during pregnancy. Well researched by scientists, acetaminophen is used primarily for headaches, fever, aches, pains and sore throat. It can be used during all three trimesters of pregnancy.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin, as well as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).
    • Aspirin, which has salicylic acid as its active ingredient, should not be taken by expectant mothers because it can cause problems for both the mother and the fetus. Also, if aspirin is taken Fa day or so before delivery, it can lead to heavy bleeding during labor. Occasionally, aspirin may be prescribed for women who have certain other medical problems, such as preeclampsia. (Aspirin decreases the risk of deadly blood clots in these patients).
  • Ibuprofen and naproxen are safer NSAID options; however, both of these medications should be used with caution during pregnancy. Ibuprofen and naproxen are considered safe during the first two trimesters, but they are ill-advised during the final three months of pregnancy because they can also increase bleeding during delivery.

The Use of Prescription Painkillers by Pregnant Women

The more common prescription painkillers are categorized as opioids, which are derivatives of the poppy plant. All opioids are considered narcotics, which are controlled substances and illegal to use without a physician's authorization. Painkillers of this strength are typically used for intense pain resulting from injuries, surgery, dental work or migraine headaches.

These prescription analgesics are available in several different forms and brand names, including codeine, OxyContin (oxycodone), Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen), Roxanol (morphine), Demerol (meperidine), Duragesic (fentanyl) and Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen). Physicians allow the use of these drugs sporadically in pregnant patients when the benefits of the drug outweigh the potential risks.

Consult Your Physician Before Taking Any Pain Medication

Please remember to always discuss all medications that you're taking with your OB-GYN. Furthermore, never take a prescription or over-the-counter pain medication without having first spoken with your physician. Opiates are potent drugs with adverse effects.

However, there is no evidence suggesting a safe level of narcotic use during pregnancy. Risks to the fetus include miscarriage, stillbirth or premature delivery. At birth, the baby is also at increased risk of low birth weight (below 5.5 pounds), breathing difficulties and extreme drowsiness, which can lead to feeding problems.

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Article Sources

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. OTC Medicines and How They Work. March 2008.

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. OTC Products and Certain Patient Groups. 2009.

  • Centers for Disease Control. Medication Exposures During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions. 29 Oct. 2004.

  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Is It Safe for My Baby? Pain Medications. 28 Mar. 2008.

  • Kaiser Permanente Hospital Network. Narcotic Painkillers. 30 Oct. 2007.

  • US Food and Drug Administration. Over-the-Counter Medicines: What's Right for You? 7 Mar. 2006.