Neonatal Pain

Neonatal Pain in Very Preterm Infants: Long-Term Effects on Brain, Neurodevelopment and Pain Reactivity

Ruth Eckstein Grunau


Effects of early life psychosocial adversity have received a great deal of attention, such as maternal separation in experimental animal models and abuse/neglect in young humans. More recently, long-term effects of the physical stress of repetitive procedural pain have begun to be addressed in infants hospitalized in neonatal intensive care. Preterm infants are more sensitive to pain and stress, which cannot be distinguished in neonates. The focus of this review is clinical studies of long-term effects of repeated procedural pain-related stress in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in relation to brain development, neurodevelopment, programming of stress systems, and later pain sensitivity in infants born very preterm (24–32 weeks’ gestational age). Neonatal pain exposure has been quantified as the number of invasive and/or skin-breaking procedures during hospitalization in the NICU. Emerging studies provide convincing clinical evidence for an adverse impact of neonatal pain/stress in infants at a time of physiological immaturity, rapidly developing brain microstructure and networks, as well as programming of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Currently it appears that early pain/stress may influence the developing brain and thereby neurodevelopment and stress-sensitive behaviors, particularly in the most immature neonates. However, there is no evidence for greater prevalence of pain syndromes compared to children and adults born healthy at full term. In addressing associations between pain/stress and outcomes, careful consideration of confounding clinical factors related to prematurity is essential. The need for pain management for humanitarian care is widely advocated. Non-pharmacological interventions to help parents reduce their infant’s stress may be brain-protective.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2013;4(4):e0025