Pain management for necrotizing enterocolitis: getting the balance right

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BACKGROUND: Adequate pain management for preterm born neonates suffering from the extremely painful disease necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is essential, since neonatal exposure to pain is related to negative short-term and long-term consequences. The aim of this study was to describe the current pain management and its effectiveness in NEC patients.

METHODS: In this single-center, retrospective study, neonates (gestational age < 32 weeks and/or birth weight < 1500 g) with NEC Bell's stage II or III were included. Information on pain (based on COMFORTneo and NRS scores) and analgesic therapy was collected and analyzed for the acute disease period.

RESULTS: Of 79 patients included, 74 (94%) received intravenous analgesic therapy: most commonly morphine, fentanyl, and acetaminophen. The median COMFORTneo score was 11 (IQR 10-11), however, 49 patients had at least one COMFORTneo score ≥ 14 indicating pain. Nineteen patients had persistent high pain scores ≥ 14 with a median duration of 7.2 h (IQR 2.8-14.0).

CONCLUSIONS: This study showed that despite analgesic therapy, most NEC patients showed signs of pain, and in some, pain persisted for several hours. It suggests that current analgesic therapy frequently failed to prevent pain and existing pain was often insufficiently treated. This supports the urgent need for individualized pain management guidelines for NEC patients.

IMPACT: This study is unique in reporting on pain management in neonates suffering from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) during the full acute disease period. Despite analgesic therapy, the majority of NEC patients experience pain, and in some patients, pain persists for several hours. These findings highlight the need for improvement of neonatal pain management in NEC patients, including better pain monitoring and guidelines for individualized analgesic therapy. Improved pain management guidelines may help to prevent short-term and long-term consequences of neonatal exposure to pain, as well as excessive exposure to opioids.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1423-1431
Number of pages9
JournalPediatric Research
Issue number5
Early online date15 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Robert Flint for providing pharmacological data and Annelies Ham for managing the data set of the Risk NEC Study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


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