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06-16 Birth defects linked to anti-anxiety drug

Birth defects linked to anti-anxiety drug

People of a certain age remember thalidomide.

Thalidomide was a sedative that was often prescribed to pregnant women during the 1950s. However, doctors soon noticed it had a terrible side effect: Babies born to mothers who had taken the drug were often born with deformities, including phocomelia, a syndrome causing deformed limbs. By some counts, 12,000 babies in 48 countries were affected with what became known as thalidomide syndrome.

Currently, thalidomide is used to treat leprosy as well as certain cancers, and many of the children affected by thalidomide syndrome went on to lead fulfilling lives. However, a new study may have found pregabalin, a drug used to treat neuropathic pain and epilepsy as well as anxiety disorders, can also cause severe birth defects.

A connection with birth defects

In the study, a research team from the Swiss Teratogen Information Service and Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland collected data in seven countries on 164 women who took pregabalin during their pregnancies. The researchers also looked at data on 656 other women who were not taking medications like pregabalin. The researchers followed up with the women or their physicians after their expected delivery dates.

The researchers discovered the women who took the medication during their first trimesters were much more likely to experience major birth defects in their babies. Of the women who took pregabalin during their pregnancies, 6 percent experienced major birth defects as opposed to 2 percent of the women who weren’t using the medication. Most of the women taking the drug did so to treat neuropathic pain, but 39 women were taking it for psychiatric reasons.

According to the study, the birth defects affected the central nervous system, skeleton, heart and skin. Interestingly, the data showed the risk of major birth defects was higher in women who took pregabalin and also reported smoking.

However, the study, published in the journal Neurology, was also accompanied by an editorial written by doctors from Harvard Medical School and the Stanford University School of Medicine. The doctors warn the original study had limitations, including a relatively small sample size as well as differing diagnoses between the two study groups.

Pregnancy, mental health and the medication question

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), women are more likely to be affected by anxiety and depression disorders. An ADAA online poll of women from 2009 found 52 percent respondents reported having increased symptoms of depression or anxiety during their pregnancies, although 32 percent reported their symptoms decreased.

The ADAA also cites a 2015 study published in the BMJ from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that showed birth defects occurring two or three times more often in babies born to women who had taken certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs early in their pregnancies. According to the CDC’s findings, the antidepressants fluoxetine and paroxetine were found to have links with digestive system, heart and skull abnormalities in babies. However, researchers did not find links between the SSRI sertraline and birth defects. Also, the CDC says the risk of birth defects in babies born to women taking these medications is still very low.

The CDC’s “Treating For Two” program provides data and other tools for women concerned about medication use during pregnancy.

Treating anxiety

Medications aren’t the only way to treat anxiety; the ADAA lists several alternative methods that can be effective in treating symptoms, including relaxation techniques and yoga. Anxiety disorders too often go untreated; the ADAA says only about a third of the people with anxiety disorders ever receive treatment. For children, the ADAA reports 80 percent of children with anxiety disorders aren’t being treated.

Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility offers a residential therapeutic environment for adolescents aged 12 to 17. Our staff of compassionate professionals help their patients reach their full potential and teach them new ways of dealing with their problems, ensuring the best possibility of a complete recovery. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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