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The debate continues about how to reduce the dangers of preterm birth.  A new study suggests an injection of magnesium sulfate to mothers at risk of preterm birth may help reduce risk of cerebral palsy. Does it work?

A birth prior to 37 weeks is considered “preterm.” Along with maternal and child morbidity, the US ranks poorly in terms of developed nations on incidence of premature birth.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preterm birth impacts approximately one in ten births in this country.  Preterm birth, and its causes, are dangerous to mom and baby.  There are several factors believed to contribute to preterm birth, including high blood pressure, environmental issues, family history, and more.  The consequences of preterm birth can be devastating and include:

  • Developmental and intellectual delays
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Vision and hearing deficits
  • Breathing and feeding difficulties
  • Death of baby

The drive to develop a treatment for moms who are at risk or in premature labor led to the use of magnesium sulfate decades ago.  Since then, the research has gone back and forth on its effectiveness.

Magnesium is a tocolytic agent, that is, a type of drug used to stop contractions in women whose baby would otherwise be delivered prematurely.  Magnesium drugs are typically given as an injection in women who experience contractions prematurely.  In approximately three of ten pregnant women, preterm labor contractions will stop on their own.  Untreated, many women will deliver with seven or fewer days.   

Magnesium is believed to alter calcium in muscle cells in the uterus.  Reduced levels of calcium are thought to cause the uterus to relax and cease contracting.  Magnesium is widely used in the US to treat preterm birth.

A recent UK study published in the BMJ finds that the use of magnesium sulfate is effective in reducing the possibility of cerebral palsy by reducing the incidence of premature birth.  The study found that the National PReCePT Programme (NPP) is effective and safe for treating preterm. Data analysis encompassed maternity units in the UK in 2018.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG) reaffirmed in 2020 that studies found magnesium sulfate had not been proven to reduce preterm birth. However, ACOG does state evidence exists that magnesium sulfate reduces risk of cerebral palsy in children who survive.

Further research will hopefully offer an effective treatment for preterm labor and its often-devastating consequences.

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