Birth Drugs

Just say no? Of course not!

Drugs save people's lives. Antibiotics, antiretrovirals, opiates, anesthetics, statins .... the list goes on and on. Every day, millions of people are kept alive by modern medicine and by appropriately prescribed medication.
In obstetrics, however, as in psychiatry, medications are overused and used inappropriately. The other day I heard a story about a woman who needed surgery like she needed a hole in the head. She is alone, poor, and anxious. She was going to have a difficult entry into motherhood without major surgery, dealing with the stress of a newborn along with the continued stresses of poverty and cultural isolation.
She was scheduled for an induction and her uterus reacted too strongly to a Cervidil insertion and started hyper-contracting. Baby went into distress and surgery was needed to save the baby. 
I would need a crystal ball and a full-on fortune telling kit to figure out if this particular mother-baby dyad would have needed surgery if left alone. But it is true that "Care providers need to consider that induction of women with an unfavourable cervix is associated with a higher failure rate in nulliparous patients and a higher Caesarean section rate in nulliparous and parous patients" (SOGC).

Why are we giving drugs to laboring women? I took a picture of this drug the other day. It is called synthetic oxytocin. It can save women's lives if they are experiencing a serious postpartum hemorrhage. But it is used much too often to speed up or stimulate labor in cases where a good dose of patience is all that is called for.

This is a high risk drug!

Another cocktail of drugs that is commonly administered is the epidural cocktail. The components vary from hospital to hospital. You can find detailed information on the most common ingredients here (page 20). Most epidurals do contain Fentanyl (see below), which is an opiate. I have never heard an anesthesiologist ask a laboring woman if she has a history of substance addiction, but most recovered addicts I know would not willing put an opiate into their bodies unless they really had to.

Which leads me to the next question, which is: when is it necessary to give pharmaceutical medication to women in labor? And I would like to suggest that the answer should be: when the pharmaceuticals are directly involved in saving the life of mother or baby or both. 

We simply do not know the long-term effects of epidural medication on the baby.  And no, I am not speaking from a pedestal of wonderful candle-lit home births here, either. I have experienced my fair share of birth trauma. And yes, I am fully aware that taking an epidural during labor is often very important for the woman's emotional and psychological well-being, and her sense of empowerment. But these drugs are becoming normalized and their effects minimized. I would like to see the brake put on this candy store mentality where we are offering dangerous drugs to women and newborns.

Here is a brief description of one of these candies:

Molecular structure of fentanyl
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, or to manage pain after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat people with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to opiates. It is a schedule II prescription drug.
In its prescription form, fentanyl is known as Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze. Street names for the drug include Apache, China girl, China white, dance fever, friend, goodfella, jackpot, murder 8, TNT, as well as Tango and Cash.
Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body's opiate receptors, highly concentrated in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opiate drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain's reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation. Medications called opiate receptor antagonists act by blocking the effects of opiate drugs. Naloxone is one such antagonist. Overdoses of fentanyl should be treated immediately with an opiate antagonist.When prescribed by a physician, fentanyl is often administered via injection, transdermal patch, or in lozenge form. However, the type of fentanyl associated with recent overdoses was produced in clandestine laboratories and mixed with (or substituted for) heroin in a powder form. Mixing fentanyl with street-sold heroin or cocaine markedly amplifies their potency and potential dangers. Effects include: euphoria, drowsiness/respiratory depression and arrest, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, unconsciousness, coma, tolerance, and addiction. (National Institute of Drug Abuse (2012). Fentanyl Retrieved from on September 23, 2014)


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