July 12 (UPI) -- Pregnant women who use opioids may be putting their unborn children at a high risk of mental and physical disabilities later in life, a new study shows.
Children who were prenatally exposed to opioids went on to have lower IQ scores than those who weren't exposed to the medications, according to findings published Friday in JAMA Network Open. Those children also have more physical development problems, as well.
"Our results show that the children have problems with neurodevelopment from as early as 6 months and they need early identification, intervention and support to make sure they do not fall by the wayside," Ju-Lee Oei, The Royal Hospital for Children in Australia and study author, told UPI.
The work included 26 studies that examined more than 1,400 children between ages six months and 18 years who were prenatally exposed to opioids and nearly 3,000 without exposure. The researchers say findings suggest children with prenatal opioid exposure have three times the risk of developing severe intellectual disabilities.
"Opioids are very useful drugs and some mothers will definitely need opioids while they are pregnant to prevent and treat pain and other serious medical issues," Oei said. "However, the community as a whole should be educated about the possible ill effects of intra-uterine opioids on the developing child."
Past research suggests prenatal opioid exposure may be fueled by dire financial circumstances. One study found pregnant women who lived in communities with few job prospects were more likely to become addicted to opioids.
Prenatal opioid exposure can also take a toll on other aspects of a child's life. Exposure to opioids in the womb may actually lower pain threshold for newborns, according to another study.
This problem can also lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome, where babies experience postnatal opioid withdrawal. In a 2015 study, the National Institutes of Health estimated NAS costs hospitals in the United States $1.5 billion each year.
"Whether it is a mix of intra-uterine drug exposure or other problems such as socioeconomic, genetics, etc, children with a history of opioid exposure are at risk of long-term neurodevelopmental problems which has the potential to significantly impact on the child's future functioning and adult outcomes," Oei said.