The use of the anticoagulant heparin to reduce the risk of intraventricular haemorrhage (i.e. bleeding in the brain) in very preterm infants

Review question: Does heparin reduce the risk of intraventricular haemorrhage (i.e. bleeding in the brain) and mortality in very preterm infants?

Background: Heparin is a drug that modulates blood coagulation together with other factors. On the basis of an observational study in very preterm infants, it has been suggested that the administration of drugs that prevent clotting (anticoagulants) such as heparin may reduce the risk of intraventricular haemorrhage and progression of intraventricular haemorrhage, a frequent complication of preterm neonates. This systematic review synthesises the available evidence on the effectiveness of heparin in preventing intraventricular haemorrhage in very preterm neonates.

Study characteristics: We included two trials for a total of 155 very preterm newborn infants comparing low-dose heparin with the same solution without heparin.

Results: The use of heparin does not reduce the risks of bleeding in the brain, mortality or any other relevant outcomes in very preterm neonates when compared to solution without heparin.

Conclusions: The results of this systematic review are consistent with either a benefit or a detrimental effect of heparin and do not provide a definitive answer to the review question.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is very limited data on the effect of prophylactic administration of heparin on the incidence and severity of IVH in very preterm neonates. Both the identified trials used heparin in the context of maintaining umbilical line patency and not specifically as an agent to prevent germinal matrix-intraventricular haemorrhage. Given the imprecision of our estimates, the results of this systematic review are consistent with either a benefit or a detrimental effect of heparin and do not provide a definitive answer to the review question. Limited evidence is available on other clinically relevant outcomes.

Read the full abstract...

Preterm birth remains the major risk factor for the development of intraventricular haemorrhage, an injury that occurs in 25% of very low birth weight infants. Intraventricular haemorrhage is thought to be venous in origin and intrinsic thromboses in the germinal matrix are likely to play a triggering role. Heparin activates antithrombin and promotes the inactivation of thrombin and other target proteinases. The administration of anticoagulants such as heparin may offset the increased risk of developing intraventricular haemorrhage and may also reduce the risk of developing parenchymal venous infarct, a condition known to complicate intraventricular haemorrhage.


To assess whether the prophylactic administration of heparin reduces the incidence of germinal matrix-intraventricular haemorrhage in very preterm neonates when compared to placebo, no treatment, or other anticoagulants.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library 2015), MEDLINE (1996 to 22 November 2015), EMBASE (1980 to 22 November 2015) and CINAHL (1982 to 22 November 2015), applying no language restrictions. We searched the abstracts of the major congresses in the field (Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand and Pediatric Academic Societies) from 2000 to 2015.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials, quasi-randomised controlled trials and cluster trials comparing the administration of early, i.e. within the first 24 hours of life, heparin in very preterm infants (gestational age < 32 weeks).

Data collection and analysis: 

For each of the included trials, two authors independently extracted data (e.g. number of participants, birth weight, gestational age, dose of heparin, mode of administration, and duration of therapy, etc.) and assessed the risk of bias (e.g. adequacy of randomisation, blinding, completeness of follow up). The primary outcomes considered in this review are intraventricular haemorrhage, severe intraventricular haemorrhage and neonatal mortality.

Main results: 

Two randomised controlled trials enrolling a total of 155 infants met the inclusion criteria of this review. Both trials compared low-dose heparin to the same solution without heparin in very preterm newborns requiring umbilical catheterisation. No trials were identified that specifically studied the use of heparin in infants at risk of germinal matrix-intraventricular haemorrhage.

We found no differences in the rates of intraventricular haemorrhage (typical RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.61 to 1.41; typical RD −0.03, 95% CI −0.17 to 0.12; 2 studies, 155 infants; I² = 57% for RR and I² = 65% for RD), severe intraventricular haemorrhage (typical RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.46 to 2.23; typical RD 0.00, 95% CI −0.11 to 0.11; 2 studies, 155 infants; I² = 0% for RR and I² = 0% for RD) and neonatal mortality (typical RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.28 to 1.67; typical RD −0.04, 95% CI −0.14 to 0.06; 2 studies, 155 infants; I² = 28% for RR and I² = 50% for RD). We judged the quality of the evidence supporting these findings as very low (rates of intraventricular haemorrhage) and low (severe intraventricular haemorrhage and neonatal mortality) mainly because of limitations in the study designs and the imprecision of estimates. We found very few data on other relevant outcomes, such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia, pulmonary haemorrhage and patent ductus arteriosus; and no study assessing long-term outcomes (e.g. neurodevelopmental disability).