The aim of this study was to investigate pain management in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) in France and to identify factors associated with variability across units. A questionnaire sent to 143 heads of level II or III NICUs investigated the use of pain scores, pain management organization and pharmacological treatment in five clinical situations (endotracheal intubation, prolonged mechanical ventilation, acute stage of necrotizing enterocolitis, central venous catheter insertion and cephalhaematoma). The response rate was 81%. Among the 35 (30%) units that used no pain scores, 40% ascribed this to lack of knowledge. Factors associated with failure to use pain scores were level II status, no university affiliation, no surgical patients and neonatal patients only. Among the units that scored pain, 78% used valid scores for acute pain and 73% for prolonged pain. Written guidelines were available for acute pain in 65% of units and for prolonged pain in 36%. The rate of pharmacotherapy use varied widely across the five clinical situations studied (from 16 to 77%) and across units for a given clinical situation. Also extremely variable were the regimens used in each situation and the dosages of analgesics and sedatives. Only 11% of units adjusted dosages to gestational age.
Conclusion: Pain assessment was performed in the most French NICUs, but a strong heterogeneity for pain treatment was observed. Reference to recently published pain management guidelines and new randomized trials could be useful to optimize pain treatment in NICUs.