Pain in infancy is poorly understood, and medical staff often have difficulty assessing whether an infant is in pain. Current pain assessment tools rely on behavioural and physiological measures, such as change in facial expression, which may not accurately reflect pain experience. Our ability to measure cortical pain responses in young infants gives us the first opportunity to evaluate pain assessment tools with respect to the sensory input and establish whether the resultant pain scores reflect cortical pain processing.
Methods and Findings
Cortical haemodynamic activity was measured in infants, aged 25–43 wk postmenstrual, using near-infrared spectroscopy following a clinically required heel lance and compared to the magnitude of the premature infant pain profile (PIPP) score in the same infant to the same stimulus (n = 12, 33 test occasions). Overall, there was good correlation between the PIPP score and the level of cortical activity (regression coefficient = 0.72, 95% confidence interval [CI] limits 0.32–1.11, p = 0.001; correlation coefficient = 0.57). Of the different PIPP components, facial expression correlated best with cortical activity (regression coefficient = 1.26, 95% CI limits 0.84–1.67, p < 0.0001; correlation coefficient = 0.74) (n = 12, 33 test occasions). Cortical pain responses were still recorded in some infants who did not display a change in facial expression.
While painful stimulation generally evokes parallel cortical and behavioural responses in infants, pain may be processed at the cortical level without producing detectable behavioural changes. As a result, an infant with a low pain score based on behavioural assessment tools alone may not be pain free.
Rebeccah Slater and colleagues show that although painful stimulation generally evokes parallel cortical and behavioral responses in infants, pain may produce cortical responses without detectable behavioral changes.
Pain is a sensory and emotional experience. It is normally triggered by messages transmitted from specialized receptors (nociceptors) in the body to integrative centers in the spinal cord and brainstem and on to the brain, where it undergoes higher sensory and cognitive analysis, allowing the body to respond appropriately to the stimuli. While the experience of pain may be considered to be unpleasant, it is a useful tool in communicating to us and to others that there is something wrong with our bodies. Ultimately, these responses help restrict further damage to the body and start the process of healing.
In a clinical setting, the ability to communicate about pain allows an individual to seek strategies to ease the pain, such as taking analgesics. Being unable to effectively communicate one's experience of pain leaves the individual vulnerable to prolonged suffering. One such vulnerable group is infants.
Ignored and untreated pain in infants has been shown to have immediate and long-term effects as a result of structural and physiological changes within the nervous system. For example, the body responds to untreated pain by increased release of stress hormones, which may be associated with increased morbidity and mortality in the short term. Long-term effects of pain may include altered pain perception, chronic pain syndromes, and somatic complaints such as sleep disturbances, feeding problems, and inability to self-regulate in response to internal and external stressors. It has been proposed that attention deficit disorders, learning disorders, and behavioral problems in later childhood may be linked to repetitive pain in the preterm infant.
Why Was This Study Done?
Until as recently as the 1990s, newborns in some clinical centres underwent surgery with minimal anesthesia. Also, newborns received little or no pain management postoperatively or for painful procedures such as lumbar punctures or circumcisions. Since then, there has been growing awareness amongst clinicians that pain may be experienced from the earliest stages of postnatal life and that inadequate analgesia may lead to the type of long-term consequences mentioned above. However, gauging how much pain infants and young children are experiencing remains a substantial challenge. The researchers in this study wanted to assess the association between cortical pain responses in young infants and currently used tools for the assessment of pain in these infants. These current tools are based on behavioral and physiological measures, such as change in facial expression, and it is possible that these tools do not give an adequate measure of pain especially in infants born preterm.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Twelve clinically stable infants were studied on 33 occasions when they required a heel lance to obtain a blood sample for a clinical reason. The researchers examined the relationship between brain activity and a clinical pain score, calculated using the premature infant pain profile (PIPP) in response to a painful event. Activity in the somatosensory cortex was measured noninvasively by near-infrared spectroscopy, which measures brain regional changes in oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin concentration. The PIPP is a well-established pain score that ascribes a value to infant behavior such as change in facial expression.
They found that changes in brain activity in response to a painful stimulus were related to the PIPP scores. These changes were more strongly linked to the behavioral components of the PIPP, e.g., facial expression, than physiological components, e.g., heart rate. They also found that a positive brain response could occur in the absence of any facial expression.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Behaviors to communicate pain require motor responses to sensory and emotional stimuli. The maturity of this complex system in infants is not clearly understood. The results of this study raise further awareness of the ability of infants to experience pain and highlight the possibility that pain assessment based on behavioral tools alone may underestimate the pain response in infants.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050129.
Important papers on pain in human neonates are discussed in the open access Paediatric Pain Letter with links to original articles
The Institute of Child Health in London has a Web site describing a three-year international project on improving the assessment of pain in hospitalized children, with many useful links
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) provides accurate and up-to-date information and links about pain mechanisms and treatment