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Acupressure studied to treat neonatal opioid withdrawal

Aug. 13, 2020, 10:17 AM


by Kelsey Herbers

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center recently completed a study to create a standardized protocol for using acupressure to treat newborns with opioid withdrawal syndrome.

The study, published in Substance Abuse, demonstrated the feasibility and acceptance by both mothers and health care providers of incorporating acupressure into the current standard of care.

Auricular acupuncture — a treatment that uses small needles placed in established points along the body to provide therapeutic symptom relief — has been deemed effective in treating symptoms of dependence in adults with substance addiction.

Acupressure, which involves applying pressure to the same points along the body through touch or with stickers, offers a less invasive way to create a similar therapeutic experience and is considered safe for newborns with varying conditions. It has also been shown to improve symptoms of pain, agitation, gastrointestinal discomfort and sleep disturbance in newborns — all of which are common symptoms of opioid withdrawal — but it has not been tested for efficacy in treating neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.

Heather Jackson, PhD, APRN

According to the researchers, the prevalence of neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome in the United States has risen approximately 400% over the last 20 years, now affecting six infants per every 1,000 live births. Because of this rise and the costs associated with providing comprehensive care, reducing the need for medication management — which can interfere with healthy development — is now more important than ever.

“Acupressure has the potential to enhance our first-line treatments for these neonates, and we are excited to study this complementary treatment more in depth at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt,” said Heather Jackson, PhD, APRN, a nurse practitioner in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Pain and Symptom Management Clinic and the study’s lead author.

Nonpharmacologic treatments also provide a less-invasive, cost-effective care plan that still allows for maternal-infant bonding. Current treatments to improve the infant’s comfort include rooming in, breastfeeding, swaddling, skin-to-skin contact, positioning, reduced stimulation, sound machines and the use of infant seats.

The study demonstrated acupressure can be added as an adjunct treatment without disrupting these evidence-based practices or causing adverse events, such as skin impairments. Additionally, interventionists and health care providers reported no barriers to implementation, and mothers reported satisfaction with adding acupressure to their infant’s care plan.

Though high-quality, randomized, controlled trials are needed to confirm the efficacy of acupressure for treating infants with opioid withdrawal symptoms, the researchers hope their study provides the framework to guide future research in using acupressure as a first-line treatment.

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