Pediatric pain management doesn’t receive as much attention as therapies for adults. But left untreated, childhood chronic pain can lead to lifelong problems.
Pain can affect anyone at any age — even children and teenagers can feel chronic pain caused by neurological or musculoskeletal disorders. But the medical community has not placed the same emphasis on pain management for pediatric patients as it has for adults and seniors.
The American Pain Foundation estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of children and teens are living with chronic pain — usually muscle, bone, or joint pain; headaches; or abdominal pain. Just as chronic pain is more prevalent in women than men, girls report more pain than boys.
If left unaddressed, chronic pain can affect children in ways that will follow them throughout their lives. They can develop emotional and psychological scars from their pain that color future choices concerning their lives and health care. Untreated pain in childhood also can lead to chronic pain in adulthood and old age.
Why is Pediatric Pain Neglected?
Pediatric pain is neglected and under-treated for several reasons:
Children and adults react differently when it comes to pain. It can be hard for adults to recognize children’s pain. Kids often will sleep, play, and function normally even though they are in pain. They may be reluctant to discuss pain with their parents because they don’t want to go to the doctor. Younger children may not have the vocabulary needed to properly express their distress.
Doctors focus on the source rather than the symptom. Many physicians become so focused on determining what’s causing a child’s pain that they fail to perform pain management. In the face of such an authority figure, children are unlikely to advocate for pain management for themselves.
Some physicians don’t understand pediatric pain management. Pediatricians assume that children can experience pain at a younger age than do physicians from other medical specialties. Doctors also may be unsure about what therapies will be most effective, given that children respond to medication and other pain management treatments differently than adults.
Know the Tell-Tale Signs of Pain in Younger Kids
A good way to know when your child is in pain is to learn the tell-tale signs of discomfort. Certain behaviors can alert you to your child’s pain, even if the child can’t properly express it himself. These include:
Favoring one part of the body
A decrease in physical activity
Changes in appetite or sleep pattern
Avoiding contact with other children
Crankiness, irritability, or unruly behavior
Non-verbal expressions of pain such as gasping, wincing, or frowning
Physical cues like dull eyes, flushed skin, rapid breathing, or sweating
Agitation or neediness
Another way to help your children is to go over the lists of words with them that express pain, so they can use the words that best show what they feel, like “sore,” “itchy,” “burning,” and “aching.”
Don’t rely on just the verbal: Ask children to point to their bodies to show where they hurt and how the pain travels through them. National Pain Foundation site Patience will help your child best express how badly he or she feels.
Be an advocate for your child’s pain management. Make sure that doctors manage pain even while they are seeking out the pain’s cause. Ask about medication for the pain, as well as other pain management treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy, and other complementary therapies.
And if you are not satisfied with your child’s treatment, you may want to consider taking him to a pain management specialist. Often an anesthesiologist, a pain management specialist can help diagnose the problem, and then determine the best way to treat it.