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Are Moms Who Had C-Sections Sent Home With Too Many Drugs?

Photograph by Twenty20

Women who give by birth by C-section in the U.S. are often sent home from the hospital with a prescription for opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, but according to three studies published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, these women might be getting way too many pills.

It’s not like the women have to take all the pills, so what’s the big deal? Well, the thing is that while opioids can be effective for managing post-surgical pain and are considered safe-ish for nursing mothers, they are also highly addictive. Ever head of opium? Yup, opioids have an opium-like effect and, like opium, can get you hooked fast.

“These are addictive medications,” says Dr. Brian Bateman, chief of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author of two of the studies. “For some patients, being exposed, even in the setting of appropriate treatment for pain, may precipitate an affinity for the drug that leads to subsequent chronic use and even abuse.”

Study researchers surveyed 720 women who delivered via C-section at various medical centers across the U.S. and found that 615, which is around 85 percent, had been given a prescription for opioids to treat their post-op pain.

About 84 percent of the women who filled their prescriptions had leftover pills. Most of the women only used about half of their prescription, but those who got more pills tended to take more pills. Why is that?

“When physicians prescribe a lot of opioid medication, patients feel as though they should be consuming a lot of medication,” Bateman says.

Oddly enough, taking more pills didn’t seem to result in better pain relief. In other words, women who took more pills weren’t more satisfied with their pain control than women who took less pills.

So, the question remains, what happened to all the leftover pills? About 95 percent of those who had leftover pills kept them instead of disposing of them. That, of course, increases the chances of them getting into the hands of children or someone for whom they were not intended.

There is some good news, though. One of the studies found that women who discussed the use of opioids with their doctors tended to go home with smaller prescriptions and didn’t need refills.

The takeaway? Be a part of the decision-making process with your doctors when it comes to pain medication after having a C-section to avoid going home with too many opioid pills and keep in mind that you have other options. "NSAIDs and acetaminophen are good pain relievers, and they don't have the same side-effect profile and the same risks that opioids have," said Bateman.

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