Behavior, pain perception, and the extremely low-birth weight survivor

M F Whitfield, R E Grunau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

101 Citations (Scopus)


This article explores the literature concerning responses to pain of both premature and term-born newborn infants, the evidence for short-term and long-term effects of pain, and behavioral sequelae in individuals who have experienced repeated early pain in neonatal life as they mature. There is no doubt that pain causes stress in babies and this in turn may adversely affect long-term neurodevelopmental outcome. Although there are methods for assessing dimensions of acute reactivity to pain in an experimental setting, there are no very good measures available at the present time that can be used clinically. In the clinical setting repeated or chronic pain is more likely the norm rather than infrequent discrete noxious stimuli of the sort that can be readily studied. The wind-up phenomenon suggests that, exposed to a cascade of procedures as happens with clustering of care in the clinical setting in an attempt to provide periods of rest for stressed babies, an infant may in fact perceive procedures that are not normally viewed as noxious, as pain. Pain exposure during lifesaving intensive medical care of ELBW neonates may also affect subsequent reactivity to pain in the neonatal period, but behavioral differences are probably not likely to be clinically significant in the long term. Prolonged and repeated untreated pain in the newborn period, however, may produce a relatively permanent shift in basal autonomic arousal related to prior NICU pain experience, which may have long-term sequelae. In the long run, the most significant clinical effects of early pain exposure may be on neurodevelopment, contributing to later attention, learning, and behavior problems in these vulnerable children. Although there is considerable evidence to support a variety of adverse effects of early pain, there is less information about the long-term effects of opiates and benzodiazepines on the developing central nervous system. Current evidence reviewed suggests that judicious use of morphine for adjustment to mechanical ventilation may ameliorate the altered autonomic response. It may be very important, however, to distinguish stress from pain. Animal evidence suggests that the neonatal brain is affected differently when exposed to morphine administered in the absence of pain than in the presence of pain. Pain control may be important for many reasons but overuse of morphine or benzodiazepines may have undesirable long-term effects. This is a rapidly evolving area of knowledge of clear relevance to clinical management likely to affect long-term outcomes of high-risk children.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-79
Number of pages17
JournalClinics in Perinatology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2000


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