A new study suggests pregnant women stay far away from prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin, especially early in their pregnancy.

A rough sketch of a baby with spina bifida.

A rough sketch of a baby with spina bifida.

Published in Obstetrics Gynecology September and in print, October 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded the study that confirmed what research to date has shown, that neural tube defects can occur in a fetus during the first month of pregnancy, a critical time when the brain, skull and spine are developing.

The likelihood of a child being born with the neural tube defect, spina bifida, nearly doubles when prescription painkillers are consumed early in pregnancy, roughly translating to six per 10,000 births reports HealthDay.

Spina bifida is a congenital disorder which results in a deformed spine due to the failure of the backbone and spinal canal to close.

Earlier studies had found some increase in congenital hydrocephaly or a form of mental retardation, as well as intestines forming outside of the body and congenital glaucoma when the pregnant woman took prescription painkillers.

The researchers from Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University used data collected from phone interviews. Those mothers of children with neural tube defects had opioid use approximately around the time of pregnancy, defined as in the two months following the last menstrual period.

Although there is an association between the drug use and birth defects which stretches as far back as the 1970s, it did not change prescribing practices. In the latest study, researchers also did not conclude a cause and effect and they stress the risk is small.

What’s upsetting is the CDC has found that opioid use is as high as 20 percent among pregnant women and the FDA reported that about half a million people used OxyContin for non-medical purposes for the first time in 2008.

In January, the federal government reported that misuse of prescription painkillers is rampant with about 22 million Americans users. What difference does the small risk mean if your child is the one born with a birth defect? Are women really getting all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether to take prescription painkillers? Are doctors truly considering the risk versus benefit of pain medication in prescribing to a woman who may become pregnant?