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Premature birth may affect pain response

Monday May 10th, 2010

Medical interventions may make it hard for premature babies to tolerate pain as they grow older, researchers warned today.

Dr Rebeccah Slater and her team at University College London, UK, investigated the effects of early care on premature babies.

They tested a group of seven premature infants who received intensive care and had been in hospital for at least 40 days. During routine clinical heel lances to draw blood, the babies' brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram.

This showed greater brain activity responses than those found in eight non-premature newborns of the same age undergoing the same treatment. Further electroencephalograms taken as the babies were gently touched on the heel showed no difference between the premature and term (born at 37 to 40 weeks) groups.

In the journal NeuroImage, the team state that these babies had developed an increased sensitivity to pain that is specific to pain rather than touch. They add that premature babies benefit from being held or cuddled as much as normal infants.

This has important implications for pain relief, say the researchers. They believe that doctors must optimise pain relief for premature infants "to minimise their enhanced sensitivity".

Older children who were born prematurely have also been found to have increased sensitivity to pain, so the researchers suggest that being born prematurely may permanently affect brain development.

Dr Slater said: "Our study shows that being born prematurely and undergoing intensive care affects pain processing in the infant brain. These observations may underlie the differences in pain sensitivity reported in older ex-preterm children.

"Our ability to measure brain responses to painful events will lead to a better and more informed approach to the administration of analgesia, and enable us to define optimal ways of providing pain relief in this vulnerable population."

Slater, R. et al. Premature infants display increased noxious evoked neuronal activity in the brain compared to healthy age-matched term-born infants. NeuroImage, published online May 10, 2010.

Tags: Child Health | Nursing & Midwifery | Pain Relief | UK News

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