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Newborns do feel pain (quick, tell the doctor)

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This will astonish nobody except doctors: babies feel pain as much as adults, and perhaps even more so. Yet, not believing this simple fact, doctors perform surgery on newborns without using any pain relievers.

The practice-which was common up to the 1980s, and to this day 60 per cent of babies still receive no pain medication before having surgery-is based on the belief that the newborn child has not developed the neural pathways that transmit signals of pain.

But a study from Oxford University has finally overturned the theory. Researchers used an MRI scanner to monitor the brains of 10 newborns and 10 healthy adults while they poked the participants on the bottom of their feet with a rod. It was like being poked with a pencil, the researchers said, and was not so painful that it would wake up the babies.

But despite being asleep, the babies’ brains experienced the same pain responses as the adults. The same areas of the brain could be seen to be responding, the researchers said. In fact, the babies’ brains had the same response to a weak poke as the adults did to a poke that was four times as great, suggesting the babies were more sensitive to pain.

“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 research team leader Dr Rebeccah Slater.

Newborns experience an average of 11 painful procedures in the first days of life, and yet 60 per cent are not given any pain medication, a 2014 survey discovered. Back in the 1980s, medication was never given before a surgical procedure on a newborn.

(Source: eLife, 2015; 4; doi: 10.7554/elife.06356)

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Article Topics: opioid, Pain
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