Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is the name given to the symptoms newborns exhibit when they are exposed to opioid drugs during the mother’s pregnancy. Women who abuse heroin and prescription opioid medications while pregnant may give birth to babies with NAS, and the syndrome can also occur when women use opioid maintenance drugs like methadone or buprenorphine, although many medical professionals think maintenance medications are less dangerous for mother and baby.
The problem is, mothers who abuse opioids throughout their pregnancies most often give birth to babies that are dependent on the drugs they used. When the newborns stop getting drugs through their umbilical cords, many begin to go through withdrawal. NAS is present in 55 to 94 percent of newborns who were exposed to the abuse of opioid drugs in utero.
Symptoms of NAS include high-pitched crying, seizures, tremors, difficulty in maintaining a normal body temperature, poor feeding, loose stools, vomiting, dehydration, or poor weight gain. NAS occurs within two to three days after birth, but symptoms can persist for longer–even for months–as the baby detoxes from the drugs in its system.
Babies whose mothers abuse opioids may also have low birth weight or be born prematurely. Developmental delays may occur as well. Information about the long-term effects of opioid drugs on the baby’s development is largely unknown.
The Data on Opioid Abuse
Data suggests that opioid abuse rates have risen over the last several years. A national Blue Cross Blue Shield study of its members found that diagnoses of opioid abuse and addiction increased nearly 500 percent from 2011 to 2016. In Colorado, Heroin Response Work Group data shows that seizures of illegal opioids, opioid-related arrests, naloxone use, and overdoses have all increased between these years as well, suggesting that opioid use has increased in the state.
Unfortunately, the number of opioid addicts who get treatment for their addictions is still very low. The federal government estimates that only about 20 percent of opioid abusers get treatment, or about 520,000 of the estimated 2.6 million opioid abusers currently living in the United States.
Without treatment of opioid abuse and addiction, the risk of overdose increases along with other impacts of opioid abuse like loss of family connection, homelessness, and incarcerations. For women who are using opioids while pregnant, the risks could be even higher and could include the death of their newborn after birth.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has increased in Colorado along with other indicators of opioid abuse and addiction. In raw numbers, cases of NAS increased 73 percent from 2011 to 2016. In 2011, there were 168 babies born with NAS in Colorado, and in 2016, there were 290 cases of NAS. These numbers are not due to an increase in population or because more babies are being born; population-adjusted numbers still show a 69 percent increase in NAS among newborns.
Reluctance to Seek Treatment
One reason why only 20 percent of opioid addicts get treatment is that most addicts are reluctant to seek treatment for a variety of reasons. Some do not recognize their drug use as a problem, while others are afraid to stop using because they might have to confront emotional or psychological issues that originally led them to use. Some do not think they have the financial means to pay for treatment and may be unaware of programs that could help them get needed treatment.
Pregnant women may be even more reluctant to go to rehab during pregnancy because of the stigma attached to using drugs while pregnant. While it might be easier for someone who is not pregnant to justify drug use based on chronic pain or trauma, the vast majority of people know that using opioids while pregnant is likely to harm the baby, and it is widely seen as being wrong to do so.
Women may also show reluctance to seek addiction treatment while pregnant because they are fearful that they may be charged with a crime if their drug use during pregnancy becomes known. Cases involving charges against a mother for using drugs tend to be widely publicized, which only adds to the fear mothers may feel.
In reality, Colorado laws state that a baby born dependent on any drugs is neglected, but mothers who seek treatment are protected from prosecution in these cases, largely to encourage them to seek treatment so that the baby can be born healthier and have a better outcome.
Colorado Treatment of Pregnant Women Abusing Opioids
There are many treatments available to pregnant women who abuse opioids. Rarely are the stakes so high in getting treatment as when a pregnant woman seeks treatment. Without medical intervention, NAS can cause death for some babies if their withdrawal is too severe. Others may suffer long-term, yet-unknown effects from the drug use, which may be minimized with treatment and intervention during pregnancy.
Pregnant women have nothing to lose and everything to gain from seeking rehab in Colorado, including immunity from criminal prosecution and medical intervention that can save their baby’s (and their own) life. Getting treatment during pregnancy can also prevent a fatal overdose that could take the life of both mother and baby, a double tragedy that treatment providers very much want to prevent.
Colorado has over a dozen programs that provide treatment help to pregnant women, including Health First Colorado (Medicaid), Health Insurance Buy-In Program, Prenatal Plus, and Special Connections, so women who do not think they can afford treatment may find a program that can help them and their babies.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake provides treatment for pregnant women who are abusing opioids including prescription medications and heroin. We can help you get the treatment you need to have a healthier pregnancy and possibly avoid NAS for your newborn. Contact us today and do what is best for your health and the health of your baby!