redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Many adults turn to massage therapy for stress relief, but new research published in the journal Early Human Development suggests that some pre-term infants forced to spend time in newborn intensive care units (NICU) could also benefit from muscle manipulation.
Pre-term infants (preemies) are typically born under-developed and with an immature autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls the body´s stress response and recovery processes, the researchers explained.
Combine that with the fact that they are often confined to a tense environment filled with mechanical ventilation, the need to undergo medical procedures and other caregiver activities, and separation from their mothers, and those children often experience high levels of stress.
“For a preemie, even a diaper change is stressful and the immature ANS over reacts to these stressors,” according to a statement from the University of Louisville School of Nursing, one of the institutions involved in the research. “Since preterm infants can´t process stressors appropriately, interventions are needed to enhance ANS function and maturity. Massage therapy may reduce stress in preterm infants by promoting ANS development.”
The study, which also involved experts from the University of Utah, discovered that massage therapy which involved moderate pressure and stroking of the soft tissues, followed by flexing and extending of the arm and leg joints, increased the heart-rate variability (HRV) of male preterm infants.
However, the same phenomenon was not observed in female preterm infants, they noted.
“HRV is a measure of ANS function and development. Infants who are born at term gestation demonstrate increased HRV, but preemies typically show decreased HRV and an inability to appropriately respond to stressors,” the Kentucky-based university said. “Massaged male preterm infants demonstrated increased HRV similar to term infants, which supports their ability to correctly respond to stressors.”
For their research, the investigators looked at 21 medically stable preterm male and female infants. They measured HRV levels during periods of sleep and caregiving that took place immediately following massage therapy at the end of the second week of study.
The researchers found no difference between female preemies that received massage therapy and those that did not. Four male preterm children who received massages demonstrated weekly increases in HRV, while those that did not receive the treatment demonstrated no such increase in variability.
“We were surprised to learn the differences in the impact of massage therapy on preterm boys and girls,” University of Louisville associate professor Sandra Smith said. “Boys who received massage therapy demonstrated increased heart rate variability, but the therapy did not seem to affect HRV in girls — perhaps there are hormonal reasons for this difference.”
Smith and her colleagues believe that their findings suggest that massage therapy enhanced ANS development in male preterm infants, and could improve their response to the stressful events that they experience. However, the professor said that additional research with a larger sample of preterm infants will be required to better understand exactly how massage impacts ANS development and function.