Intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH) is a major complication of preterm birth. Large haemorrhages are associated with a high risk of disability and hydrocephalus. Instability of blood pressure and cerebral blood flow are postulated as causative factors. Another mechanism may involve reperfusion damage from oxygen free radicals. Phenobarbital has been suggested as a safe treatment that stabilises blood pressure and may protect against free radicals.
To determine the effect of postnatal administration of phenobarbital on the risk of IVH, neurodevelopmental impairment or death in preterm infants.
We included 12 controlled trials that recruited 982 infants. There was heterogeneity between trials for the outcome IVH, with three trials finding a significant decrease in IVH and one trial finding an increase in IVH in the group receiving phenobarbital. Meta-analysis showed no difference between the phenobarbital-treated group and the control group in either all IVH (typical risk ratio (RR) 0.91; 95% CI 0.77 to 1.08), severe IVH (typical RR 0.77; 95% CI 0.58 to 1.04), posthaemorrhagic ventricular dilation (typical RR 0.89; 95% CI 0.38 to 2.08), severe neurodevelopmental impairment (typical RR 1.44; 95% CI 0.41 to 5.04) or death before hospital discharge (typical RR 0.88; 95% CI 0.64 to 1.21). There was a consistent trend in the trials towards increased use of mechanical ventilation in the phenobarbital-treated group, which was supported by the meta-analysis (typical RR 1.18; 95% CI 1.06 to 1.32; typical risk difference 0.129; 95% CI 0.04 to 0.21), but there was no significant difference in pneumothorax, acidosis or hypercapnia.
Postnatal administration of phenobarbital cannot be recommended as prophylaxis to prevent IVH in preterm infants and is associated with an increased need for mechanical ventilation.