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updated 1/22/2015 1:45:40 PM ET 2015-01-22T18:45:40

Many women in the United States who are in their childbearing years are prescribed opioid pain relievers, powerful medications that can cause birth defects, a new study finds.

Researchers analyzed prescriptions for opioid pain medications among U.S. women ages 15 to 44 between 2008 and 2012. They found that each year, about a quarter of women (27.7 percent) who had private insurance, and nearly 40 percent of women on Medicaid, filed a prescription for an opioid pain medicine, according to the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Many women of reproductive age are taking these medicines and may not know they are pregnant, and therefore may be unknowingly exposing their unborn child" to the drugs, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a statement. "That's why it's critical for health care professionals to take a thorough health assessment before prescribing these medicines to women of reproductive age."

The rate of opioid prescriptions was highest among women in the South (where 31.5 percent of women in their childbearing years received a prescription), and lowest in the Northeast (where 21.8 percent of women in their childbearing years received a prescription). [ 5 Surprising Facts About Pain ]

Taking opioids during the first few weeks of pregnancy may increase the risk of birth defects, such as defects in the baby's brain, spine and heart, according to the CDC. Babies exposed to opioids in the womb may also be at risk for having symptoms of withdrawal as newborns.

Many women may need to take opioids to manage their health conditions, but in some cases, safer alternatives are available, the researchers said.

Efforts are needed to reduce unnecessary prescribing of opioids, particularly among women who may be pregnant, they said.

The study likely underestimates opioid prescriptions among reproductive-age women because it included only prescriptions filled in pharmacies; some people may be prescribed opioids in the hospital, and some may obtain opioids illegally without a prescription, the researchers noted.

The study is published this week in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.        

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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