Buprenorphine safer than methadone for neonates born to opioid addicts

Buprenorphine vs. methadone in neonates born to opiate addicts
Look mom-- no neonatal abstinence syndrome!

The article below describes a presentation at a recent meeting of ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that compared the use of buprenorphine or  methadone for treating opioid addiction during pregnancy.  I hear from pregnant women often, who write out of frustration that their OBs have never heard of buprenorphine or Suboxone and asking what they should do to educate their physicians.  Let’s hope that studies like this one help get the word out!  If you search this blog you’ll find a number of my posts about pregnancy, opioid dependence and buprenorphine.  Some of the posts include articles about neonatal abstinence, breast feeding while taking buprenorphine, and comparisons between buprenorphine and methadone.  I also recommend, of course, the forum, where you will find many other women who have already wrestled with this issue.

Buprenorphine Favoured Over Methadone for Opiate Addiction in Pregnancy

By Fred Gebhart

SAN FRANCISCO — May 19, 2010 — A recent study in Maine among women addicted to opiates has found that buprenorphine is safer for neonates than traditional treatment with methadone.

The research was presented in an oral paper on May 18 at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) 58th Annual Clinical Meeting. The paper won ACOG’s Donald F. Richardson Memorial Prize.

“It has been shown that patients on methadone are more stable in terms of their physical and mental health and are more likely to receive standard prenatal care, but methadone has clear effects on the child,” noted lead author Michael Czerkes, MD, Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine. “Buprenorphine is an attractive alternative, but there are few data on the effects on neonatal outcomes. Since our patient population uses both agents, we decided to find out.”

The key objection to methadone from the infant’s perspective is the appearance of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a combination of symptoms that include dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory system. NAS has a number of short-term consequences, including prolonged hospital stays, prolonged monitoring, and an increased need for intravenous medications. Methadone is also inconvenient for the mother, requiring daily clinic visits, and it is subject to diversion because it is a euphoric agent.

Limited data on buprenorphine suggest that it may carry less risk for perinatal morbidity, but trials have been small and somewhat contradictory. Buprenorphine can be dispensed in 30-day packaging, which eases the burden on the mother, and is less subject to diversion because it significantly less euphoric than methadone.

Researchers at the Maine Medical Center conducted a retrospective chart review of women addicted to opioids who were using either buprenorphine or methadone and who delivered their babies at the institution between 2004 and 2008. There were 101 methadone patients and 68 buprenorphine patients available for analysis. There were no significant maternal differences between the 2 groups.

The differences between offspring of mothers in the 2 groups were dramatic, said Dr. Czerkes. The mean NAS score for buprenorphine infants was 10.69 compared with 12.5 for methadone infants (P = .0012). While the difference was statistically significant, Dr. Czerkes cautioned that it might not be clinically significant.

Other outcomes were both statistically and clinically significant. Buprenorphine infants spent a mean of 8.4 days in the hospital compared with 15.7 days for methadone infants (P < .0001) and only 48.5% of buprenorphine infants required treatment compared with 73.3% of methadone infants (P < .001).

Among buprenorphine infants who needed treatment, withdrawal symptoms appeared by day 3 or did not appear at all. Withdrawal symptoms in methadone infants appeared anywhere between days 2 and 6. “That may be a clinically significant finding,” said Dr. Czerkes. “If you don’t see withdrawal in these babies by day 3, they may not have withdrawal at all.”

Overall, he concluded, buprenorphine appears to be safer for neonates than methadone. Researchers are recruiting patients for a larger randomized controlled trial.

[Presentation title: Buprenorphine Versus Methadone Treatment for Opiate Addiction in Pregnancy: An Evaluation of Neonatal Outcomes]

2 thoughts on “Buprenorphine safer than methadone for neonates born to opioid addicts”

  1. I am almost 37 weeks pregnant, and have been on Subutex therapy now since August. I have been very concerned about my baby being born with withdrawals, and having to stay in the hospital. I was on Vicodin for 6 years straight for chronic pain due to Fibromyalgia, DDJD and chronic lower back pain, and upon becoming pregnant, my OB doctor recommended I see an addiction treatment specialist, because staying on Norco wasn’t an option (which I knew, but was very scared about). Going off my Norcos was hell, and I knew it would be…I tried to quit cold turkey one day and landed myself in the hospital after flushing all my medication down the toilet. I was tired of the person it had made me become…I was being dishonest with my husband, selling things that meant a lot to me when I would run out of my script from taking too many in a month, etc. All of this because I was prescribed a medication I didn’t take the time to research before taking over a long period of time!!
    I am now very scared of the effects it may have on my baby, and whether or not they will keep him. Nobody as of yet has said to me that they will have to keep him, so I am kind of confused. Are they just not telling me this because they don’t want me flipping out? Or are they just not versed in caring for a newborn infant born after subutex therapy? I am deathly afraid now, that something will go wrong. My doctor, who sees mostly pregnant women said he’s had great success with non-addicted babies being born. My question is, does it matter how long you have been taking it?

  2. I have had many patients go through pregnancy and delivery while on buprenorphine. In three of them– about 15%– the babies stayed an extra period of time ranging from one to three days. Frankly, the babies would have been fine had they been discharged; I think that in all three cases it was the medical people who were the most ‘irritable’!

    Ask your doc, point blank, if he/she is comfortable with things. Be CONFIDENT during the discussion that you have medical science behind you; that you have an illness in opioid dependence that you did not ‘deserve’, and that you are being proactive and doing everything right in how you are handling things. You have NOTHING to be ashamed about– this is something that a doctor should be able to handle, without making YOU feel bad!