Oxford researchers have concluded that early childhood infections in babies and infants can increase a child’s sensitivity to pain, possibly for life.
In a new study published in Nature Communications, doctors administered standard heel-prick blood tests to 65 newborn babies. The tests are used by pediatricians globally to look for infections that may require antibiotics. In the study, if the blood test suggested a potential infection, doctors began looking for signs of prolonged discomfort.
In babies with lab markers for infection, all signs pointed to increased sensitivity to pain. The doctors measured changes in each baby’s brain activity, leg reflex withdrawal activity, facial expression, and heart rate to gather evidence.
Most importantly, the babies maintained a sensitivity to touch even after the infection was treated. Other laboratory studies have also shown that childhood infection can have a long-term influence on pain sensitivity, which can last into adulthood.
“Around ten per cent of babies are thought to have infections after birth, and it is important to realize that these babies may be more sensitive to pain when they are handled and cared for in hospital. As babies can’t tell us when they are feeling pain finding ways to measure pain, including looking at their brain activity, is essential to improving clinical care,” said Rebeccah Slater, Professor of Pediatric Neuroscience at Oxford University’s Department of Pediatrics.
Neonatal infections have long puzzled doctors, but now the assumptions have more scientific backing
Dr. Maria Cobo, the postdoctoral researcher who led the study, said the study will affect how caregivers handle newborn and young children with infections.
“It is thought-provoking to know that increased sensitivity to pain appears to last longer than the infection, highlighting the importance of constantly reviewing and improving the care we give to newborn children,” Cobo noted. “Knowing that babies with infections may be more pain sensitive will encourage physicians to make babies more comfortable while they undergo treatment for common infections, which is important for both babies and their parents.”
The study, itself, said in its conclusion that the data helps better explain neonatal inflammation and pain.
“In conclusion, our results indicate that there is a connection between neonatal inflammation, spinal cord hypersensitivity, and cortical nociceptive processing in human infants,” authors of the study wrote. “It represents a vital step towards translating what has become a sizable pre-clinical literature on neonatal inflammation and pain — which, until now, has been unmoored from clinical data. Future work, involving carefully matched, longitudinal cohorts of neonates, will be required to further elucidate the potential long-term consequences of early-life neuro-immune interactions.”