A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that the number of infants undergoing opiate withdrawal after birth has increased by three over the past decade. Neuroscientist Michael W. Miller finds the new research unsettling.
May 8, 2012
In 2009, 13,500 babies in the US were born addicted to opiates, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association’s study. That amounts to one baby out of every 1,000 born, or less than one percent.
For scientists such as Michael W. Miller, less than one percent is still too high.
2009 also saw the use of opiates by women increase five times. It does not matter if the opiates were legally prescribed or illegally obtained. The damage to the infant is the same in either case.
Infants who are born going into opiate withdrawal display frightening symptoms. These symptoms include problems with feeding and difficulty breathing. Some babies appear restless or exhibit seizures.
Some of the symptoms are more alarming than the others, such as newborns scratching their faces or twisting and turning. Premature birth and a low birth rate are other signs of opiate use and withdrawal.
While the long term impact of babies born with opiate addiction is not clear, the effects could be similar to babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, notes Michael W. Miller. The symptoms of FAS cause lasting mental impairment and physical deformities.
Doctors use methadone, a synthetic opiate, to help calm the infant’s withdrawal symptoms and wean them off of the opiates. Methadone is commonly given to people who are trying to overcome an addiction to heroin. Like other opiates, there is a risk for dependence with methadone.
The growing number of babies born with an opiate addiction points to several other disturbing trends. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, opiates are prescribed too often by doctors. The over-prescribed drugs are then sold illegally.
In 2011, addiction to painkillers became an epidemic, according to the CDC.
Babies who show signs of withdrawal typically need to spend several weeks longer in the hospital than healthy babies. This increases the cost of healthcare for everyone.
Michael W. Miller notes that as with FAS, opiate addiction and withdrawal in infants is completely preventable. Perhaps more education for pregnant women and the population in general is needed.
Michael W. Miller is a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He has studied the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome thoroughly and has published many papers on the topic.