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Exposure to intrapartum epidural analgesia and risk of autism spectrum disorder in offspring

Murphy MSQ, Ducharme R, Hawken S, Corsi DJ, Petrcich W, El-Chaâr D, Bisnaire L, McIsaac DI, Fell DB, Wen SW, Walker MC. JAMA Netw Open. 2022; 5(5):e2214273. Epub 2022 May 26. DOI:

Importance — There is conflicting evidence on the association between intrapartum epidural analgesia and risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in offspring.

Objective — To evaluate the association between intrapartum epidural analgesia and the risk of ASD in offspring.

Design, Setting, and Participants — This population-based cohort study was conducted in Ontario, Canada, using the health and administrative records of singleton live births by vaginal delivery between April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2014. Neonates with less than 24 weeks' gestation or weighing less than 500 g were excluded. Offspring were followed up from 18 months of age until ASD diagnosis, loss to follow-up, or the end of the study (December 31, 2020), whichever occurred first. Exposure, covariate, and outcome data were obtained using provincial health administrative databases.

Exposures — Any intrapartum exposure to epidural or combined spinal-epidural analgesia.

Main Outcomes and Measures — The primary outcome was ASD diagnosis after 18 months of age. Inverse probability of treatment weighting (IPTW) of Cox proportional hazards regression models was used to estimate the hazard ratio (HR) of intrapartum epidural analgesia and ASD in offspring. Offspring head injury was used as a control outcome. Models were adjusted for maternal sociodemographic factors, health behaviors, and medical and obstetrical history as well as labor, delivery, and offspring characteristics. Post hoc analyses included restriction to term neonates, a conditional within-mother analysis, exclusion of records with concomitant intrapartum pain management exposures, a complete case analysis, use of an alternative ASD definition, and estimation of the average treatment effect in the treated group.

Results — Among the 650 373 mother-offspring pairs included in the study, 418 761 (64.4%) were exposed to intrapartum epidural analgesia. The mean (SD) maternal age at delivery was 29.7 (5.5) years; the offspring had a mean (SD) gestational age at delivery of 39.1 (1.6) weeks and included 329 808 male newborns (50.7%). The exposed and unexposed groups were similar in all maternal and newborn characteristics after IPTW (standardized difference <0.10). Autism spectrum disorder was diagnosed in 7546 offspring (1.8%) of mothers who received intrapartum epidural analgesia (incidence rate, 18.8 [95% CI, 18.4-19.3] per 10 000 person-years) compared with 3234 offspring (1.4%) who were unexposed (incidence rate, 14.4 [95% CI, 13.9-14.9] per 10 000 person-years). The crude HR for ASD associated with intrapartum epidural analgesia was 1.30 (95% CI, 1.25-1.36), and the IPTW-adjusted HR was 1.14 (95% CI, 1.08-1.21). Results did not qualitatively differ in post hoc analyses.

Conclusions and Relevance — Results of this study showed that intrapartum epidural analgesia was associated with a small increase in risk for ASD in offspring. The biological plausibility of this association, however, remains unclear, and the finding must be interpreted with caution.

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