Allied Health Senior Research Projects

Document Type

Senior Research Project (Restricted)

Presentation Date



Neonatal abstinence syndrome, prenatal, drug exposure, long term effects, pediatrics, physical therapy, motor function, cognitive function


The specific focus of this presentation examines research regarding the long term effects of prenatal drug exposure and the role of physical therapy. Initially, my experience shadowing an early intervention physical therapist allowed me to see these effects firsthand and piqued my interest for further study. Research Question: Do physical therapy early intervention methods provide improvement in motor and cognitive function in children with prenatal drug exposure as opposed to those who receive no treatment? In order to address the question, this presentation reviews the long term motor and cognitive effects of prenatal drug exposure and the efficacy of physical therapy in addressing these deficits.

The increased opioid use of the past two decades is linked with a dramatic increase in drug dependent mothers. Due to this opioid epidemic, babies are born addicted to drugs and suffer from withdrawals. This is termed Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). While the short term effects are relatively well known, identifying the long term effects prove more complicated. However, it is clear that a majority of these children suffer from a variety of deficits and are in need of further care. Early intervention programs assist in connecting these children with the proper assistance. Researching this population has several limitations, including the vulnerability of the population, polydrug use, and the environmental variables associated with longitudinal studies.

While I reviewed several articles in my research, my presentation examines a case-control study and a systematic review. Both of these articles address motor and cognitive deficits, use several measures for their results, and consider the limitations of the research in making their conclusions. These articles found statistically significant differences in the motor and cognitive performances of NAS babies as opposed to control infants. These conclusions reflect the general opinion of the scientific community as well as the recommended follow ups for NAS newborns.

Unfortunately, due to the complications of studying this population, the research does not provide specific studies on the efficacy of physical therapy for these situations. However, the research does show that physical therapy is successful in treating similar conditions. Additionally, researchers advocate for physical therapy as a treatment for the long term deficits of NAS children. In addressing the treatment of this population, the value of home care is emphasized. This allows the therapist to monitor and address many of environmental complications that are associated with NAS children.

Despite the difficulties of researching the long term effects of prenatal drug exposure, further study of this population and treatments is important. As long as the opioid epidemic proves an issue, the prevalence of babies born addicted to drugs will remain high. It is vital that the scientific community bring attention to this vulnerable population to promote quality care and better outcomes. For future research, I would address the measures used, polydrug use, and specific interventions for these deficits. Additionally, I would encourage early intervention therapists to find ways to participate in studies.


© 2020 Gabrielle Imfeld. All rights reserved