Painful Choices

09.20.11 Moms-to-be, think twice before taking pain medication


Everyday discomforts don't disappear just because you're pregnant, and ouch-inducing events still happen. But moms-to-be should be cautious when treating pain. It's long been known that when taken later in pregnancy, steroid-free anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may harm the fetus. Aspirin, too, can be harmful.

In addition, a recent study from the University of Montreal found a possible link between the use of nonaspirin painkillers like ibuprofen in early pregnancy and a higher risk of miscarriage, Time magazine reports.

Reasearchers, in a study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, also have found evidence that opioids such as Vicodin (acetaminophen and hydrocodone) and codeine—often prescribed for pain caused by injuries, surgeries, infections or chronic medical conditions—may increase the risk of birth defects when taken just before conception or in the first trimester.

Now a study has found that children of women who used acetaminophen (Tylenol and other over-the-counter brands) at any time during pregnancy had an increased risk of asthma. This is news because acetaminophen has long been considered the safest pain medication for expectant women.

What to do? For minor pain, seek relief through drug-free therapies, such as rest, ice or hot or cold compresses. Even for more serious pain, don't automatically reach for medications, says epidemiologist Cheryl Broussard, Ph.D., author of the opiod study. "Women making these decisions need to talk to their doctors and weigh the benefits against the risks of birth defects," she says.

If you're pregnant and in need of some pain medication and it's not an emergency, check our Feel Better Safely page to read our expert suggestions regarding the use of over-the-counter medications. After all, there are some safe bets, but there are definitely some drugs that are strictly off-limits. If you're still unsure, check with your OB-GYN for some peace of mind.

—Shari Roan / Maria Vega