Methadone and Pregnancy

Methadone and Pregnancy

People use Methadone to quit using opiates, but it offers help when taken by pregnant women

Methadone is an extended-release narcotic used in opiate replacement therapies and for chronic pain management. The drug binds to opioid receptor sites in the brains of heroin and painkiller addicts to relieve cravings, block the euphoric effects of other opiates and to mitigate withdrawal symptoms. The drug also provides the pain relief of other opioids without providing the narcotic high. As noted by the Science & Practice Perspectives journal in 2002, methadone works on the same brain processes as addictive opiates, but with protective and normalizing effects. Female opiate addicts who become pregnant often ask if methadone is safe to use during the pregnancy. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health consensus panel recommended methadone as the standard of care for pregnant women with opiate addiction, and many times this kind of maintenance actually improves overall safety.

The Benefits of Methadone During Pregnancy

The 2005 government guideline Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Programs stated that 4% of the 400,000 women treated for addiction in 1999 were pregnant, and 19% of such patients listed opioids as the primary drug of abuse. In 1991, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs explained that methadone maintenance for pregnant opiate addicts offers the following benefits:

  • Removes the patient from her drug-seeking environment
  • Promotes recovery and reduces the risk of release
  • Eliminates the daily ups and down of maternal heroin levels

Opiate addicts who become pregnant may want to quit abruptly, but the withdrawal symptoms can cause uterine contractions, miscarriage or early labor. Methadone maintenance helps minimize or eliminate any withdrawal symptoms that might damage the fetus. Furthermore, methadone reduces the risk of confusing pregnancy and withdrawal symptoms, which both include fatigue, headaches, nausea, vomiting and cramps.

Methadone Abuse Risks During Pregnancy

Methadone has been administered during pregnancies since the 1960s, and medical professionals have recommended it since the 1970s, so there is considerable evidence that the medication does not harm the developing fetus or cause birth defects. However, pregnant women should note the following potential risks before they take this drug:

  • Babies may experience mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms
  • The symptoms typically begin in the first 72 hours, but they can take up to 14 days to emerge
  • Symptoms may include irritability, gastrointestinal dysfunction and respiratory distress
  • The symptoms do not have long-term adverse consequences, and they are easily treated
  • Other possible effects, like low birth rate, typically correct themselves as the baby grows
  • These issues involve significantly less risks than a mother experiencing withdrawal symptoms, relapse or continued opiate abuse

Methadone dosage usually increases during the pregnancy as maternal changes include more fluid space, a larger tissue reservoir and higher metabolism. Dosage levels are typically reduced after the birth, and ongoing methadone maintenance does not damage breastfeeding.

Comprehensive Care for Pregnant Addicts

Opiate abuse is commonly associated with health issues like poor nutrition, anemia, inadequate prenatal care, bacteremia, gestational diabetes, hypertension, pneumonia, poor dental hygiene, STDs, urinary tract infections and tuberculosis. For that reason, methadone maintenance should be part of a comprehensive program that includes the following other treatments:

  • Tests that include a complete blood count, hepatic panel and other key screenings
  • Integrated treatment for any co-occurring physical and mental health issues
  • Lifestyle programs that improve nutrition and that provide proper prenatal care
  • Addiction treatment therapies that promote recovery and that reduce relapse risk

If you need help, our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day to discuss issues like addiction, methadone and treatments during pregnancy. They can answer any questions and even check health insurance policies for benefits. Please call our toll-free helpline now.