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Babies Not Given Pain Meds For Surgery But Feel Pain Like Adults

Last updated April 22, 2015

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

A new study comparing baby brains with adult brains show that their brains respond similarly when exposed to the same painful stimulus.

A new study comparing baby brains with adult brains show that their brains respond similarly when exposed to the same painful stimulus.

Researchers at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford (UK) used a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner to look at 10 healthy infant brains between the ages of 1 to 6 days old with 10 healthy adults between the ages of 23 to 36 years old. The participant babies had their fMRI scans taken while they were asleep to minimize movement. Then, the researchers poked the bottom of the babies’ feet with a retracting rod that mimics a pencil poke. Each poke was strong enough to induce pain but light enough to keep the baby asleep. Afterward, the scans were compared to the adult exposed to the same stimulus.

Results showed that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults were also active in babies. In addition, the fMRI scans showed that babies' brains had the same response to a weak poke as adults did to a stimulus that was 4 times stronger. This finding suggests that babies may also have a lower pain threshold along with the same pain response.

In a 2014 review, 60 percent of infants do not receive any pain medication when experiencing an average of 11 painful procedures per day during neonatal pain management practice in intensive care.

 “Thousands of babies across the UK undergo painful procedures every day but there are often no local pain management guidelines to help clinicians. Our study suggests that not only do babies experience pain but they may be more sensitive to it than adults,” said Dr. Rebeccah Slater of Oxford University's Department of Pediatrics and lead author of the report. “We have to think that if we would provide pain relief for an older child undergoing a procedure then we should look at giving pain relief to an infant undergoing a similar procedure.”

This study helps physicians become more aware of the medical procedures they should take and whether pain medication is the acceptable route for infants.

Study Reference:

Sezgi Goksan, Caroline Hartley, Faith Emery, Naomi Cockrill, Ravi Poorun, Fiona Moultrie, Richard Rogers, Jon Campbell, Michael Sanders, Eleri Adams, Stuart Clare, Mark Jenkinson, Irene Tracey, Rebeccah Slater. fMRI reveals neural activity overlap between adult and infant pain. eLife, 2015; 4 DOI:10.7554/eLife.06356

Additional References:

Roofthooft, D. W., Simons, S. H., Anand, K. J., Tibboel, D., & van Dijk, M. (2014). Eight years later, are we still hurting newborn infants. Neonatology,105(3), 218-226.

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: April 22, 2015
Last updated: April 22, 2015