Pharmacological Treatment of Neonatal Opiate Withdrawal: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  • Liu A
  • Björkman T
  • Stewart C
  • et al.
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Illicit drug use with opiates in pregnancy is a major global health issue with neonatal withdrawal being a common complication. Morphine is the main pharmacological agent administered for the treatment of neonatal withdrawal. In the past, morphine has been considered by and large inert in terms of its long-term effects on the central nervous system. However, recent animal and clinical studies have demonstrated that opiates exhibit significant effects on the growing brain. This includes direct dose-dependent effects on reduction in brain size and weight, protein, DNA, RNA, and neurotransmitters—possibly as a direct consequence of a number of opiate-mediated systems that influence neural cell differentiation, proliferation, and apoptosis. At this stage, we are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. There are no real alternatives to pharmacological treatment with opiates and other drugs for neonatal opiate withdrawal and opiate addiction in pregnant women. However, pending further rigorous studies examining the potential harmful effects of opiate exposure in utero and the perinatal period, prolonged use of these agents in the neonatal period should be used judiciously, with caution, and avoided where possible.




Liu, A., Björkman, T., Stewart, C., & Nanan, R. (2011). Pharmacological Treatment of Neonatal Opiate Withdrawal: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. International Journal of Pediatrics, 2011, 1–5.

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