Pregnancy & Pain Killers. Here’s What You Need to Know


By: Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder

Being pregnant is one of the greatest joys. But it comes with many aches and pains!

When I was pregnant, I was usually aware of what I was putting into my body because I knew what I ingested could affect my baby’s health. 

For example, a pregnant woman has to be very mindful of what pain medications she is taking. Drugs such as opioids are usually not recommended unless absolutely necessary.

(Read here for guidelines and risks regarding opioids and pregnancy).

But what about just good old regular over-the-counter medications like Tylenol®?

Along with Tylenol®, brand name drugs such as Anacin®, Panadol®, Sudafed® and more contain acetaminophen.

Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States. It’s found in more than 600 different medicines, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, fever reducers, and sleep aids as well as cough, cold, and allergy medicines,” reports the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

“Each week, approximately 23 percent of U.S. adults — or 52 million consumers — use an acetaminophen-containing medicine.”

Turns out, pregnant women may be putting their babies at risk if they take acetaminophen.

A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality found evidence suggesting that taking acetaminophen during pregnancy may increase the risk of the baby developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The researchers of the study (from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health) collected and analyzed umbilical cord blood from 996 births. They measured the amount of acetaminophen and two of its byproducts in each blood sample, according to one report discussing the study. 

They then looked at the status of the children pertaining to all of the blood samples at an average age of 8.9 years. Here is what they found:

  • 25.8 percent of the children had been diagnosed with ADHD only
  • 6.6 percent had been diagnosed with ASD only
  • 4.2 percent diagnosed with both ADHD and ASD

The research team categorized the amount of acetaminophen and byproducts from the blood samples into thirds from lowest to highest.

The results? “Compared to the lowest third, the middle third of exposure was associated with about 2.26 times the risk for ADHD. The highest third of exposure was associated with 2.86 times the risk. Similarly, ASD risk was higher for those in the middle third (2.14 times) and highest third (3.62 times).”

This is actually not “new news.” This study piggybacks off of previous studies that have found connections between acetaminophen and greater risks during pregnancy. 

For example, “In 2013, researchers conducting a sibling comparison in a large, population-based Norwegian birth cohort study suggested that prenatal acetaminophen use for 28 or more days was associated with poorer motor and communicational development and externalizing problems (ie, inattentiveness and aggression) in offspring,” (Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics).

In addition to this, an Israeli study from 2018 found evidence suggesting that prenatal exposure to acetaminophen increases the risk of ADHD and ASD. 

This is concerning, because reportedly up to 70 percent of pregnant American women take acetaminophen not to just treat pain but also treat infection and fever.

“Acetaminophen is the analgesic [pain reliever] and antipyretic [fever reducer] most commonly used during pregnancy,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

And while pregnant women may be able to get through pain without taking medications, maternal fever and infections must be treated. 

How to be proactive?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that these findings are not definitive. You also have to consider how much and how often you are taking acetaminophen during pregnancy. As always, speak with a competent healthcare professional about your concerns and all of the medications and supplements you may be taking.

Perhaps you can come up with a plan to not take acetaminophen unless it is absolutely necessary. And if you have a fever while pregnant (which can put your baby at risk for birth defects if not treated) ask your doctor about other treatment options and concerns with taking acetaminophen. 

Now when it comes to natural pain relief, nutrition may play a big role.

For instance, headaches may be the result of nutrient deficiencies, like magnesium and various B vitamins. There are a variety of delicious and healthy foods that are rich in magnesium. Leafy green vegetables (like spinach), legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains contain magnesium. Foods with fiber, like cherries, are also good dietary sources of magnesium, and many cereals are fortified with this essential mineral. If you have difficulty eating magnesium rich foods, talk to your doctor about obtaining a high quality magnesium supplement that is safe for pregnant women. There is also some evidence that magnesium may be absorbed through the skin, so taking a bath with magnesium salts may improve your magnesium levels. And a hot, relaxing bath may definitely soothe pregnancy aches and pains.  Of course, with being pregnant you will want to consult your doctor about taking a bath with magnesium salts. Skin is the largest organ of the body, and we absorb so much through our skin.

You can also discuss with your doctor if aromatherapy is a viable option. Applying cold compresses to the body where there is soreness and practicing yoga may also help with pain.

In order to stay healthy during pregnancy and combat pain, fever and infection, it is important to eat a nutrient-rich diet. For pregnancy dietary tips, click here. Ensuring that you are nutritionally balanced is also key. Take routine nutrient tests in order to identify any nutrient imbalances. If the test reveals you have too much or too little of a specific nutrient, your doctor can work with you on making the necessary dietary changes and recommend quality supplements safe for pregnancy if necessary. 

Finally, ladies it is important to know that if you are not pregnant but planning to be soon, you want to talk to your doctor about the use of acetaminophen before you conceive. Before conceiving, both you and your partner should be in the healthiest and fittest state possible and get medical advice regarding what medications are safe to take.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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