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Options for procedural pain in newborn infants
  1. Judith Meek
  1. Neonatal Unit, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing, University College Hospital, 235 Euston Road, London NW1 2BU, UK; Judith.meek@uclh.nhs.uk

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Neonatologists often feel helpless in the management of procedural pain. While we acknowledge that our patients are more frequently and chronically exposed to tissue damaging procedures than any other hospital population, and that they are more vulnerable both in the short and long term, it is not certain that we have any techniques that are proven to be effective. Although we have developed numerous guidelines1 2 they are not reliably applied in clinical practice.3

It is widely recognised that newborns undergoing intensive care are necessarily subjected to numerous painful procedures.4 Despite the availability of clinical guidelines the majority of painful procedures on neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are still carried out without any form of analgesia. Even outside the NICU term neonates are subjected to multiple procedures such as blood tests and insertion of nasogastric tubes. Surgical procedures such as circumcision, tendonotomy and division of tongue tie are routinely carried out without analgesia because they are ‘quick’. The extra vulnerability of newborns to repeated noxious stimulation, arising from both their clinical instability and their developmental immaturity, makes this a situation that needs urgent solutions. This review will explore the options for managing procedural pain, and the limitations of the clinical evidence for their effectiveness.

Clinical aspects of minimising the frequency and impact of painful procedures

Controlling chronic pain

The newborn may experience both acute procedural pain and chronic pain. It is recognised in adults that uncontrolled chronic pain increases the intensity of additional acute painful experiences. Therefore the first step towards managing procedural pain is to minimise chronic pain, which may be due to intensive care support apparatus, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or tissue damage. Although the evidence base for treating these conditions is weak, careful observation and developmental care should also be used to enhance comfort and stability.

Reducing the number of painful procedures

Avoiding painful procedures is an obvious goal. For example, blood sampling can be …

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