For 3 years, your mental health clinic has been treating Ms. J, age 23, for bipolar disorder. She is single, unemployed, lives alone, and receives Social Security disability assistance and financial support from her parents. She has been successfully maintained on aripiprazole, 15 mg/d, and citalopram, 20 mg/d, for 18 months. Six months ago she began to miss therapy sessions and physician visits.
Her parents inform Ms. J’s therapist that she is “snorting oxycontin” with her new boyfriend. At her next visit Ms. J confirms she has been struggling to manage an opioid use disorder for more than 1 year, and requests help.
After you educate her about the diagnosis, pathophysiology, and treatment of opioid addiction, she chooses to include pharmacotherapy as part of her treatment. After informed consent, Ms. J agrees to take buprenorphine and naloxone, meet with her therapist weekly, and attend twice-weekly Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. Over the ensuing months she is gradually inducted onto buprenorphine and naloxone, 12 mg, shows improved insight and motivation, provides negative urine drug screens, and demonstrates increased ability to manage her recovery. Two weeks later Ms. J tells you she may be pregnant but wants to continue buprenorphine and naloxone.
Opioid use disorder (OUD) during pregnancy is among the most difficult clinical scenarios to manage. The prevalence of OUD during pregnancy is largely unknown. However, stigma against pregnant patients with OUD is substantial.1 This article briefly summarizes identification, assessment, and treatment of OUD during pregnancy. To avoid confusion with the term “physical dependence, “ we will use “opioid use disorder” instead of “opioid dependence. “ The DSM-5 Substance Use Disorders Workgroup recommends combining abuse and dependence into a single disorder of graded clinical severity; however, this has not been finalized.2
Early identification is crucial
Early identification of OUD in pregnant women can be challenging. Self-reports underestimate use3 and shame, fear of prosecution or involvement of child welfare services, and guilt can further erode self-report. Women with OUD may have irregular menses and might not be aware of their pregnancy until several months after conception.4 Also, women with OUD who are maintained on opioid agonist therapies may misinterpret early signs of pregnancy—such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and cramps—as withdrawal symptoms and may respond by increasing their opioid dosing, thus exposing their fetus to increased drug levels. Finally, many women with OUD experience amenorrhea as a result of their stressful, unhealthy lifestyle, which may preclude pregnancy despite sexual activity. When these women later enroll in an opioid maintenance program, their endocrine function may return to normal, leading to unexpected pregnancy.5
Screening for OUD in pregnant patients has not been well studied. An interviewer’s nonjudgmental, empathic attitude may be more important than the specific questions he or she asks. It may be best to begin with less threatening questions and proceed to more specific questions after developing a therapeutic alliance.6
Chasnoff et al7 studied >2, 000 Medicaid-eligible pregnant patients from 9 prenatal clinics to identify risk factors for substance use during pregnancy. Alcohol or tobacco use in the month before pregnancy most differentiated current drug or alcohol use from nonuse while pregnant; however, a wide variation in use rates among patients in this study limits the generalizability of these findings. Consider OUD in women with:
physical examination findings or history that suggests substance use or withdrawal symptoms
positive drug test results for illicit or nonprescribed opioids
aberrant medication-taking behaviors in those receiving prescribed opioids
nicotine or alcohol use in the month before they knew they were pregnant
a history of addiction-related disorders
evidence of diseases associated with drug use, such as human immunodeficiency virus or hepatitis C
poor prenatal care attendance
unexplained fetal growth abnormalities.
Chasnoff et al demonstrated the reliability and effectiveness of a 1-minute, 5-item instrument (the “4 P’s Plus”) to screen for substance use, including heroin, during pregnancy (Table 1)8 In a study of 228 pregnant women, the overall internal consistency of this instrument was low but acceptable. More than three-quarters of patients (78%) were correctly classified as positive or negative, sensitivity was 87%, specificity was 76%, negative predictive validity was extremely high (97%), and positive predictive validity was low (36%). This low positive predictive validity may be acceptable in this population because over-identification of women at risk may be preferred to under-identification. The 4 P’s Plus identifies light and infrequent substance users who otherwise would go undetected, although it may place undue burden on providers to follow up on what later may be revealed to be a false positive screen.9 OUD-specific screening approaches are lacking; screening for general substance use is discussed elsewhere in the literature.10