Clinical Review

2018 Update on obstetrics

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A maternal-fetal medicine physician tackles 3 high-priority obstetric topics: managing opioid use disorders in pregnant women, protocols for postpartum hemorrhage, and new carrier screening recommendations



The past year brought new information and guidance from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) on many relevant obstetric topics, making it difficult to choose just a few for this Update. Opioid use in pregnancy was an obvious choice given the national media attention and the potential opportunity for intervention in pregnancy for both the mother and the fetus/newborn. Postpartum hemorrhage, an “oldie but goodie,” was chosen for several reasons: It got a new definition, a new focus on multidisciplinary care, and an exciting novel tool for the treatment toolbox. Finally, given the rapidly changing technology, new screening recommendations, and the complexity of counseling, carrier screening was chosen as a genetic hot topic for this year.

Opioids, obstetrics, and opportunities

Reddy UM, Davis JM, Ren Z, Greene MF; Opioid Use in Pregnancy, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, and Childhood Outcomes Workshop Invited Speakers. Opioid use in pregnancy, neonatal abstinence syndrome, and childhood outcomes: Executive summary of a joint workshop. Obstet Gynecol. 2017;130(1):10-28.

ACOG Committee on Obstetric Practice. ACOG committee opinion No. 711: Opioid use and opioid use disorder in pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol. 2017;130(2):e81-e94.

The term "opioid epidemic" is omnipresent in both the lay media and the medical literature. In the past decade, the United States has had a huge increase in the number of opioid prescriptions, the rate of admissions and deaths due to prescription opioid misuse and abuse, and an increased rate of heroin use attributed to prior prescription opioid use.

Obstetrics is unique in that opioid use and abuse disorders affect 2 patients simultaneously (the mother and fetus), and the treatment options are somewhat at odds in that they need to balance a stable maternal status and intrauterine environment with the risk of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Additionally, pregnancy is an opportunity for a woman with opioid use disorder to have access to medical care (possibly for the first time) leading to the diagnosis and treatment of her disease. As the clinicians on the front line, obstetricians therefore require education and guidance on best practice for management of opioid use in pregnancy.

In 2017, Reddy and colleagues, as part of a joint workshop on opioid use in pregnancy, and a committee opinion from ACOG provided the following recommendations.


Universally screen for substance use, starting at the first prenatal visit; this is recommended over risk factor-based screening.

Use a validated screening tool. A tool such as a questionnaire is recommended as the first-line screening test (for example, the 4Ps screen, the National Institute on Drug Abuse Quick Screen, and the CRAFFT Screening Interview).

Do not universally screen urine and hair for drugs. This type of screening has many limitations, such as the limited number of substances tested, false-positive results, and inaccurate determination of the frequency or timing of drug use. Information regarding the consequences of the test must be provided, and patient consent must be obtained prior to performing the test.


Use medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone, which is preferred to medically supervised withdrawal. Medication-assisted treatment prevents withdrawal symptoms and cravings, decreases the risk of relapse, improves compliance with prenatal care and addiction treatment programs, and leads to better obstetric outcomes (higher birth weight, lower rate of preterm birth, lower perinatal mortality).

Know that buprenorphine has several advantages over methadone, including the convenience of an outpatient prescription, a lower risk of overdose, and improved neonatal outcomes (higher birth weight, lower doses of morphine to treat NAS, shorter treatment duration).

Prioritize methadone as the preferred option for pregnant women who are already receiving methadone treatment (changing to buprenorphine may precipitate withdrawal), those with a long-standing history of or multi-substance abuse, and those who have failed other treatment programs.

Prenatal care

Screen for comorbid conditions such as sexually transmitted infections, other medications or substance use, social conditions, and mental health disorders.

Perform ultrasonography serially to monitor fetal growth because of the increased risk of fetal growth restriction.

Consult with anesthesiology for pain control recommendations for labor and delivery and with neonatalogy/pediatrics for NAS counseling.

Intrapartum/postpartum care

Recognize heightened pain. Women with opioid use disorder have increased sensitivity to painful stimuli.

Continue the maintenance dose of methadone or buprenorphine throughout hospitalization, with short-acting opioids added for a brief period for postoperative pain.

Prioritize regional anesthesia for pain control in labor or for cesarean delivery.

Consider alternative therapies such as regional blocks, nonopioid medications (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen), or relaxation/mindfulness training.

Avoid mixed antagonist and agonist narcotics (butorphanol, nalbuphine, pentazocine) as they may cause acute withdrawal.

Encourage breastfeeding to decrease the severity of NAS and maternal stress and increase maternal-child bonding and maternal confidence.

Offer contraceptive counseling and services immediately postpartum in the hospital, with strong consideration for long-acting reversible contraception.

Opioid prescribing practices

Opioids are prescribed in excess postcesarean delivery. Several recent studies have demonstrated that most women are prescribed opioids post–cesarean delivery in excess of the amount they use (median 30–40 tablets prescribed, median 20 tablets used).1,2 The leftover opioid medication usually is not discarded and therefore is at risk for diversion or misuse. A small subset of patients will use all the opioids prescribed and feel as though they have not received enough medication.

Prescribe postcesarean delivery opioids more appropriately by considering individual inpatient opioid requirements or a shared decision-making model.3

Prioritize acetaminophen and ibuprofen during breastfeeding. In a recent editorial in OBG Management, Robert L. Barbieri, MD, recommended that whenever possible, acetaminophen and ibuprofen should be the first-line treatment for breastfeeding women, and narcotics that are metabolized by CYP2D6 should be avoided to reduce the risk to the newborn.4


Universal screening for substance use should be performed in all pregnant women, and clinicians should offer medication-assisted treatment in conjunction with prenatal care and other supportive services as the standard therapy for opioid use disorder. More selective, patient-specific opioid prescribing practices should be applied in the obstetric population.

Read about new strategies for postpartum hemorrhage.

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