Choosing Treatment for Pregnant Women Addicted to Opioids

Doctors caring for pregnant women addicted to opioids may face a difficult choice—should they treat with methadone or buprenorphine? While a study published in 2010 in the New England Journal of Medicine provides some guidance, physicians must consider the individual circumstances of the mother, says study co-author Karol Kaltenbach, PhD, Director of Maternal Addiction Treatment Education and Research at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

She spoke recently about treating pregnant women for opioid addiction at the 2012 Ruth Fox Course for Physicians, part of the American Society for Addiction Medicine annual conference.

Methadone is the recommended treatment for pregnant women who are addicted to opioids. When properly used, methadone is considered relatively safe for the newborn. But it is associated with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a group of symptoms caused by opioid withdrawal in the newborn that often require medical treatment and long hospitalization.

The 2010 study found that compared with methadone, buprenorphine resulted in similar maternal outcomes, but buprenorphine was better than methadone in reducing withdrawal symptoms in the newborns. This meant babies required less medication and less time in the hospital.

The Maternal Opioid Treatment: Human Experimental Research (MOTHER) trial included 131 pregnant women who were addicted to opioids, such as heroin or prescription pain medication, with low rates of other illicit drug use. This meant the researchers knew that cases of NAS were caused by opioids, and not other drugs, said Dr. Kaltenbach, who is also Professor of Pediatrics and Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College.

Buprenorphine is a newer medication, and less is known about its effect in pregnant women and their babies. “Our study was not seeking to replace methadone as an option for treatment of opioid dependence,” Dr. Kaltenbach says. “We wanted to clearly delineate the different effects of the two medications.”

There have been no changes in the recommendations for treatment of opioid-addicted pregnant women since the study was published, she notes. “A physician’s decision has to be made on what’s clinically best for the mother,” she says. “If a woman has been successfully maintained on buprenorphine, she should continue on that drug, and the same holds for methadone.”

She says the transition from methadone to buprenorphine can be difficult. “Even though the infant outcomes are better at birth, and we want to minimize the hospital stay for the babies, we also need to consider the health of the mother—if methadone is effective for her, she should stay on it.”

Pregnant women who are addicted to opioids who have never been treated for their addiction are probably good candidates to start buprenorphine, Dr. Kaltenbach states. “If that doesn’t prove to be effective, she can easily be transferred to methadone.”

Many doctors are uncomfortable starting pregnant women on buprenorphine, since there is less experience of using buprenorphine in this population. “Our trial had very rigorous monitoring conditions, in that we hospitalized all of the women for induction onto buprenorphine or methadone so we could maximize their safety and ensure they weren’t going into withdrawal,” Dr. Kaltenbach says. “But that’s not necessarily feasible in community-based organizations or private practices that are treating pregnant women with opioid addiction.”

The study also focused on women who were addicted to opioids, but not to other substances, such as benzodiazepines or alcohol. “In real life, most women using opioids also use benzodiazepines, which affects NAS, making it longer in duration and harder to treat,” she notes.

Dr. Kaltenbach and her colleagues received additional funding to follow the infants in the study through their first three years to see how they developed. The data is currently being analyzed.

13 Responses

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    October 23, 2017 at 3:30 AM

    My daughter is pregant and on herion need help no insurance or money but she needs help soon

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      October 24, 2017 at 2:01 PM

      Hi Ida,
      I’m glad you’re reaching out for help for your daughter. You can try this the national treatment locator from the government at this link: They have a video tutorial on how to use it, but you can search for treatment on a sliding scale and mark that you are looking for a program for a pregnant woman. You might also try calling local clinics to see who they might recommend. Getting on some form of medication will likely be her best bet.
      Wishing you and your daughter the best,

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    Jennifer howle

    March 11, 2017 at 4:15 AM

    Trying to find ob that will prescribe medication subutex

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    June 7, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    hi im a pregnant herion addict and need advise aswell as someones help,could anyone plz be kind enough to reply to me.i want to stop using herion but I dnt know which way to go there are no rehabs near me that have enough knowledge about herion abuse it has only recently become a known drug.Which is a better option to take suboxone or methodone,what are the effects of both medications on babies is it safe to take while been pregnant unfortunately her in South Africa no1 has a clue abt herion its only wat I can get on the web.pls plz reply back im really deperate.

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