Advances in medical technology and care have decreased the risk of death for very low birth weight infants. Infants born as early as 24 weeks gestation can survive and thrive, but researchers know little about the impact of such a short gestation on normal body functions and reactions. A group of scientists from various hospitals and universities in Norway set out to find out more about one particular body reaction - pain.

The study involved participation from 35 preterms and 28 controls. The controls were born at term. The average gestational age at preterm birth was slightly less than 27 weeks. When follow-up testing occurred, the average age of participants was about 18 years. Participants were asked to place their hand in ice water with a ceiling time of 180 seconds. Twice as many teens in the control group hit the pain ceiling compared to the preterm group (32% versus 61%). However, when researchers took mechanical ventilation time, morphine doses and pain events as a newborn into consideration the results changed dramatically.

The preterm group who experienced more pain spent more time on ventilation and those given more morphine doses tended to withdraw from the ice water later - resulting in a decreased reaction to pain stimuli.

Conclusion: Researchers concluded that preterm subjects tested similarly to control subjects, especially in cases where extensive medical care and medications were used during infancy.

Source: Vederhus BJ, Eide GE, Natvig GK, Markestad T, Graue M, Halvorsen T. Pain tolerance and pain perception in adolescents born extremely preterm. J Pain. 2012 Oct;13(10):978-87. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2012.07.008.

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