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Postpartum Depression and Prescription Drug Addiction

Postpartum depression affects one in every nine U.S. women who give birth. Postpartum depression is depression that occurs after having a baby and shares many of the same symptoms as major depression, as well as feelings of doubt about being able to care for a baby, and crying more often than usual in the weeks following childbirth. When left untreated, postpartum depression can last for months and years, and can even increase a mom’s risk for prescription drug addiction — especially when drugs are used as part of surgery aftercare for procedures like cesarean sections, or as a way to self-medicate for symptoms of depression.

Evidence shows that new mothers tend to have high occurrences of alcohol and illicit drug use and that moms who suffer from postpartum depression are generally at high risk for substance abuse. The most recent data shows that 15% of postpartum women with children under the age of one year regularly binge-drink alcohol, while 8.5% use illicit or non-medical drugs that include prescription opioids. Not only does postpartum drug use limit a mom’s ability to adequately care for her child, but postpartum drug use can lead to serious problems with dependency and addiction that can compromise a mom’s health and well-being, as well as that of her entire family.

Here’s what you need to know about postpartum depression and prescription drug addiction, and how to get help if you’re suffering from addiction while pregnant or after you’ve given birth.

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Who is Most at Risk of Becoming Addicted to Prescription Opioids?

Statistics show that men are more likely to abuse illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl than women, but when it comes to prescription opioids, women are often at higher risk for addiction. The number of women who died from prescription opioid overdoses increased by 400% from 1999 to 2010, while the number of men who died rose by only 265% in comparison. Why are women more at risk for addiction to painkillers than men?

Women tend to visit doctors more often than men and report pain at higher rates. Women also tend to undergo a higher number of medical procedures that require opioids for pain management, including C-section deliveries and hysterectomies. A recent study shows that women are 40% more likely than men to become persistent users of opioids after surgery, and are likely to be prescribed higher doses of opioids for longer durations than men.

Women have a different biological makeup than men and are proven to be more susceptible to certain drugs as a result. For instance, women achieve higher blood concentrations of alcohol than men even when drinking the same amount, and experience greater euphoria and intense highs than men when using cocaine. This occurs mainly on behalf of unique estrogen profiles in women, which have been found to intensify the effects of alcohol and other substances.

Though women are generally at greater risk for prescription drug addiction than men, the risk is often higher among pregnant women and new mothers. C-section deliveries and postpartum depression are two of the most important risk factors that drive painkiller addiction following pregnancy.

What Causes a Higher Risk of Prescription Drug Addiction After Pregnancy?

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Mothers who are prescribed opioids often continue using them to cope with postpartum depression.

Pregnancy and childbirth can be physically and emotionally taxing for many women. Childbirth can be painful and may require surgery in cases of C-section deliveries and complications that call for the removal of female organs. Opioids are often prescribed to women who have these procedures as part of surgery aftercare since many birth-related surgeries are high-risk, invasive, and extremely painful.

A woman’s hormones will also fluctuate greatly after giving birth as estrogen levels return to normal, which increases the risk for postpartum depression. Many women will continue using prescription opioids as a way to self-medicate for symptoms of depression in the days, weeks, and months following childbirth. Studies show that the risk for prescription drug addiction goes up for mothers who are unmarried and unemployed on behalf of factors like stress and depression.

Here’s a closer look at how surgery aftercare and postpartum depression increase the risk for prescription drug addiction after pregnancy.

Surgery Aftercare

Up to 92% of surgery patients who are prescribed opioids to manage postoperative pain end up with leftover pills — including new mothers. Today, many doctors and hospitals are rated by patients on their ability to reduce pain. Patients who experience greater levels of pain for longer periods of time after surgery usually submit poor reviews and ratings, which can negatively affect a doctor’s practice and bottom line. As a result, many doctors tend to overprescribe opioids so their patients can be satisfied with the treatment and leave positive reviews.

Meanwhile, patients who are left with a surplus of painkillers often face a greater risk for addiction due to the way these drugs can easily trigger physical dependence. Prescription opioids bind to receptors in the brain that not only reduce pain, but that bring about feelings of euphoria. Many patients who end up with leftover opioids often choose to continue taking their pills long after post-surgical pain has subsided just to feel good and to experience relaxation and euphoria.

New mothers are not exempt from opioid dependence and can become addicted to these pills just like anyone else who has surgery. Roughly 32% of all births that take place in the U.S. are performed via C-section, which is more than double the rate recommended by the World Health Organization. This number was 20% in 1996, and only 5% in 1970, which indicates that painkiller use after pregnancy is much more common in the U.S. today given the high percentage of C-sections performed annually.

Self-Medicating for Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is a subtype of major depression and produces additional symptoms related to parenting, such as feelings of resentment surrounding being a mother, and disinterest in caring for one’s child. Risk factors for postpartum depression include having a history of depression or bipolar disorder, experiencing traumatic or stressful events before childbirth, and having lack of support from a partner and other family members. Dramatic fluctuations in hormones following childbirth can also play a role in the risk for postpartum depression.

Studies show that people who suffer from depression and other mental health disorders are twice as likely to also suffer problems with substance use disorders like prescription drug addiction. Those with depression often use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms and to experience relief if even for a short time. The same applies to moms who are trying to cope with postpartum depression, and who may lack support and other resources needed to help them overcome their depression.

The prevalence of illicit and prescription drug use among new mothers increased from 4.5% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2003. Just like with other depressive disorders, the risk for substance use disorders is higher in women with postpartum depression. Studies show that the interactions between mothers and babies are less positive for moms who abuse prescription drugs and other substances.

Lowering Your Risk for Prescription Drug Addiction After Pregnancy

If you’ve had a C-section delivery, hysterectomy, or another surgical procedure associated with childbirth, talk to your doctor about alternate ways to manage pain without having to use prescription opioids. If using opioids is the best pain-management solution for you, use the drugs only as directed, and avoid doubling up on doses, since this increases the risk for an overdose, dependence, and addiction. As soon as your postoperative pain subsides, return all unused opioid pills to a drug take-back location like a pharmacy, hospital, or police station that can safely and properly dispose of your leftover medication.

To lower your risk for postpartum depression, ask for help and support from your partner, friends, and family in the days and weeks following childbirth. Caring for an infant can be difficult while you’re also recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, and your friends and family can help you with simple tasks that can seem overwhelming at first such as feeding and diaper changes. Stay away from alcohol, drugs, and caffeine — all of which may increase your risk for postpartum depression and/or substance abuse, and mention symptoms of depression to your doctor so you can receive immediate treatment.

How to Get Opioid Addiction Treatment

Pregnant moms and new moms who suffer from prescription drug addiction can get help and become clean at a drug detox center that offers opioid addiction treatment. Many pregnant women tend to hold off on seeking addiction treatment due to stigma and fear of backlash and negative consequences, but getting help immediately can potentially save your life and that of your baby’s. Getting help for opioid addiction today can also strengthen the bond between you and your child so both of you can move forward with establishing a strong, loving relationship.

If You Are Pregnant

Data shows that roughly 21,000 pregnant women in the U.S. have misused opioids in the past month. Opioid use among U.S. women who gave birth increased from 1.19 to 5.63 per 1,000 hospital births from 2000 to 2009, while the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, increased at nearly the same rate.

Using prescription opioids during pregnancy can cause your baby to be born with NAS — a group of conditions that occur when a baby withdraws from drugs after exposure in the womb. The number of babies born with NAS in the U.S. increased five-fold from 2000 to 2012, with one baby being born with NAS every 25 minutes. Symptoms of NAS in your baby may include vomiting, diarrhea, breathing problems, excessive crying, and other opioid withdrawal symptoms commonly experienced by adults.

If you are currently pregnant and dependent on prescription opioids, don’t stop taking the drugs cold turkey, since doing so can cause serious problems for your baby, including death. Instead, contact your healthcare provider right away to discuss your treatment options. Opioid addiction during pregnancy is commonly treated using medication-assisted treatment or MAT, which substitutes the drug of abuse with medications that are safer for both you and baby, and that can eliminate opioid withdrawal symptoms. Getting opioid addiction treatment can help you stop using drugs, and is much safer for your baby than getting no treatment at all.

If You Are Suffering After Giving Birth

Mothers who continue using drugs after giving birth and who decide to breastfeed can pass these substances to their babies through breast milk. This can cause serious health problems in your baby, and also lead to addiction. For instance, using opioids while breastfeeding can cause your baby to experience tremors, vomiting, and difficulty feeding, while using stimulants like cocaine can lead to irritability, diarrhea, and seizures.

The existence of postpartum depression and a substance use disorder is known as co-occurring disorders. Many addiction treatment centers can help you overcome both disorders at the same time so you can become physically and mentally healthier, and become a better parent. Co-occurring disorders are commonly treated using detox, behavioral counseling, pharmacotherapy, and relapse prevention training.

Opioid dependence can be treated using a medical detox or MAT, which involve the use of medications methadone, buprenorphine, and/or naltrexone — all of which can reduce opioid cravings and completely eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Behavioral counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you identify and overcome the core reasons you started abusing prescription drugs in the first place so you can avoid future drug use. In some instances, you may be prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics that can help you manage postpartum depression.

Relapse prevention training teaches you how to handle yourself in situations that would normally lead to alcohol and drug use. For instance, if hearing your baby cry is one of your triggers, you’ll learn of healthier ways to manage your stress and care for your baby without turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. Relapse prevention training is often included as part of extended care programs following opioid addiction treatment, along with support group therapy, family therapy, and ongoing behavioral counseling.

If you are a mother or mother-to-be who is struggling with prescription drug addiction, don’t wait any longer to get help. Call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to speak with a caring and understanding drug abuse counselor who can discuss all your treatment options. We’ll help you find the nearest drug detox center that offers opioid addiction treatment so you and your baby can move forward with living healthy, happier, addiction-free lives.

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