Babies feel pain ‘like adults’: Most babies not given pain meds for surgery

Apr 24, 2015

Image courtesy of University of Oxford

By Science Daily

The brains of babies ‘light up’ in a very similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus, a pioneering Oxford University brain scanning study has discovered. It suggests that babies experience pain much like adults.

The study looked at 10 healthy infants aged between one and six days old and 10 healthy adults aged 23-36 years. Infants were recruited from the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford (UK) and adult volunteers were Oxford University staff or students.

During the research babies, accompanied by parents and clinical staff, were placed in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner where they usually fell asleep. MRI scans were then taken of the babies’ brains as they were ‘poked’ on the bottom of their feet with a special retracting rod creating a sensation ‘like being poked with a pencil’ — mild enough that it did not wake them up. These scans were then compared with brain scans of adults exposed to the same pain stimulus.

The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults experiencing pain were active in babies. Scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same response to a weak ‘poke’ (of force 128mN) as adults did to a stimulus four times as strong (512mN). The findings suggest that not only do babies experience pain much like adults but that they also have a much lower pain threshold.

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5 comments on “Babies feel pain ‘like adults’: Most babies not given pain meds for surgery

  • What these simply observations can’t do is quantify pain in any understandable sense in the absence of self reports, of the possibility of memories and internal expectations about pain and its significance.

    Pain is the more painful given the understanding that this is the start of more pain to come, the signpost of an end to a loved life or lifestyle, or pain long imagined and contemplated. Spectacularly painful events are often wiped from memory and can hold little retrospective dread.

    Its complicated.

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  • This is so stupid. Babies scream their heads off if you accidentally poke them with a safety pin. OF COURSE they feel pain. How could anyone be so stupid as to think otherwise.

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  • My thoughts exactly. Why would anyone ever have assumed that babies don’t feel pain? What was the reasoning behind it? It sounds like a stupid old wives tale that for some reason intelligent people decided not to question.

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  • 5
    Docjitters says:

    Ugh. Not the ‘babies don’t get pain meds for surgery’ chestnut again. I read the 2 reference papers from the materials the news story is drawn from. The ‘no pain meds’ bit is a throw-away line describing medical practice that was unacceptable more 25 years ago when the first paper was published. The second (Google the title for the full paper) mentions that potentially painful procedures became less numerous in a neonatal unit over an eight year period. They suggest that relatively constant failure rates of certain medical procedures (which may then require a repeat attempt) might be linked to increased numbers of very premature (and therefore sick and technically difficult to treat) babies surviving to need care. 60% of babies may not have received medication for a painful procedure because it’s either not practical or there’s a non-drug alternative like sucrose or cuddle-and-feed. It also says that we may have reached the reasonable limit of pain reduction techniques.

    Phil has dealt with the obvious limitation of the study (measurement does not equal experience) and it’s a nice study confirming the neurodevelopment of the pain centres but where does the ‘Doctors think babies don’t feel pain’ spin keep coming from?

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