New research has found a link between the maternal use of ibuprofen and several serious, life-threatening birth defects.
Ibuprofen is the generic name for the brand-name drugs Advil, Motrin. Ibuprofen is a painkilling medication that belongs to a class of drugs known as “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs,” or “NSAIDs” for short. NSAIDs are the most widely-used medications in existence, because they can treat a wide range of problems. Prescription-strength Ibuprofen is prescribed for people with rheumatoid arthritis, moderate pain, and muscle stiffness. You probably have over-the-counter Ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet, because it is useful for reducing fever, treating mild headaches, alleviating symptoms of the common cold, backaches, and more. NSAIDs, including Ibuprofen, inhibit an enzyme that is involved in inflammation and pain.
Ibuprofen and Pregnancy
Recent research has found a link between NSAIDs, including Ibuprofen, and the following types of serious, life-threatening birth defects. Experts now warn women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant not to use Ibuprofen or NSAIDs, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy.
- Amniotic band syndrome: When a baby is developing in the womb, it is surrounded by the amniotic sac. Sometimes, parts of this sac can detach, forming bands that can entangle the developing infant, in a birth defect called Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS). ABS is more than three times more likely to occur in infants whose mothers took Ibuprofen or an NSAID early in pregnancy. Sometimes ABS causes no problems to the child. Other times, parts of the amniotic sac can amputate fingers or limbs, or cause strangulation that causes death.
- Clubfoot: A baby born with clubfoot may have one foot or both feet turned inward at a sharp angle, resembling a club. This birth defect develops in the womb, is present at birth, and is not related to the position of the child in the womb. A baby with clubfoot has tendons and ligaments that are shorter than usual. Though it looks painful, it usually does not cause problems until the child is ready to begin walking. Recent advances in treatment options have improved non-surgical techniques, which include gradually stretching and banding or casting the foot to the correct position.
- Anophthalmia / Microphthalmia: These relatively rare birth defects of the eye are three times more common in babies whose mothers took Ibuprofen or another NSAID during pregnancy. A baby with one of these two birth defects is blind — in anophthalmia, the baby has no eyes; in microphthalmia, the baby has smaller eyes that are almost always blind. There is no treatment for anophthalmia or microphthalmia.
- Cleft Lip and/or Palate: These two birth defect are 30-80% more likely to occur when the mother took an NSAID or Ibuprofen during pregnancy. Oral clefts can occur alone or together, and vary widely in severity. Nearly all babies born with a cleft lip or a cleft palate have problems eating, swallowing, and sucking. They often cannot get enough nutrition through breastfeeding alone. Fortunately, there are good treatment options for these birth defects.
- Spina Bifida: This serious birth defect nearly always results in some level of paralysis, caused by the spinal cord being exposed to amniotic fluid in the womb, which causes irreparable nerve damage. Ibuprofen and pregnancy increases the rate of Spina Bifida by 60%.
What is the problem with Ibuprofen?
Researchers announced the results of a birth defect study at the end of 2011, which analyzed data from 15,000 women who had a baby with a birth defect. The researchers looked for links between certain medications and 29 different birth defects. Although most of the birth defects had no link to medication use during pregnancy, some serious birth defects were slightly associated. The researchers stressed that the results of this study are not conclusive evidence that NSAIDs cause birth defects, but instead the results are a warning sign, and more research needs to be conducted. Until then, the researchers warn women not to mix Ibuprofen and pregnancy, because there may be a link.