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American Children Pay for the Opioid Epidemic

As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage the U.S., scores of Americans die each day from overdoses of narcotics. For those attempting to break free of addiction, extreme withdrawal symptoms are often faced, but what if those experiences are increasingly encountered by our nation’s youth? A recent study found that America’s children are now paying the price.

A publication in the journal Pediatrics examined 858 newborns to test the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the syndrome refers to the symptoms experienced by babies who were exposed to opiates while in the mother’s womb. The researchers split participants into two groups, neonates unexposed to opioids and those with NAS. They found that chronic opiate use by pregnant women is associated with birthing infants with an average of nearly one-centimeter smaller head circumference than those not exposed to the drugs. In fact, 30% of those with the condition had especially decreased skull size.

Although one centimeter may not sound like much, it could be devastating to the neural development of the child.

What are the Consequences?

A shrinkage in skull capacity indicates possible reduction to brain size in NAS patients involved in the study. Abnormalities to brain structure are likely to also cause irreversible defects in functioning.

The peer-reviewed journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that the long-term impact of the syndrome on newborns may include improper insulation of nerves, respiratory and heart defects, stunted growth, and deficits in cognitive and motor abilities, in addition to having an increased risk of lower IQ and diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The Mayo Clinic also notes consequences of opioid dependency to the unborn child during pregnancy because the drug can cross the placenta and enter the fetal nervous system. As it crosses the placenta, it could potentially spur miscarriage or preterm labor, which could result in permanent disability to the infant. Furthermore, once born, these babies often require lengthy hospitalization and treatment with morphine to decrease the withdrawal symptoms, such as intense tremors and seizures, as noted by Stanford Children’s Health.


In the U.S., an infant is born every 15 minutes with NAS, according to a study by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The total rate of babies diagnosed with the syndrome has increased by 433% between the years 2004-2014. Interestingly, that rate is nearly double when analyzing pregnancies covered by Medicaid. In 2014, Medicaid covered an estimated 80% of NAS births in America.

The lead researchers of the Vanderbilt publication, Dr. Tyler Winkelman, explains:

“NAS resulted in approximately $2 billion in excess Medicaid costs in the 10-year period we studied. State Medicaid programs could improve infant and maternal health and save money by investing in prevention and treatment for low-income women with opioid use disorders.”

Indeed, preventative measures and treatment are the themes advocated by many medical professionals today. However, to properly battle the epidemic, the roots of its cause must become known – but that is where difficulties especially arise. In contrast to popular opinion, there are a myriad culprits to the crisis that do not necessarily stem from a lack of morality on the part of those struggling with addiction.

A large percentage of offenders are not merely “bad seeds.” About 80% of illicit drug users were sexually or physically manipulated during childhood, as reported by Liberty Nation. Another important demographic to the crisis is the mentally ill. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”24″]Another important demographic to the crisis is the mentally ill. [/perfectpullquote]

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four individuals with a severe mental illness, such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder struggle with addiction. Furthermore, military veterans have high rates of substance abuse upon their arrival back home, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who may turn to opiates in an attempt to relieve the extreme anxiety.

Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service, also announced factors contributing to the epidemic. He states that individuals receiving higher doses of prescription opiates for long-term pain management are at an increased risk of developing an addiction. Although many patients need such painkillers for severe discomfort, the issue arises during misuse of prescriptions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that about 80% of heroin users report turning to the drug after misusing prescription narcotics.

Prevalence of NAS, as examined in Pediatrics, displays how widespread opioid abuse is not only impacting the user, but also the youth of our nation. Medical professionals across the country are working together to strategize how best to battle the crisis. But until the epidemic is resolved, children across America will continue to suffer potentially irreversible consequences.

Read More From Gabriella Fiorino

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