Understanding Chronic Pain in Children

chronic pain childrenPreventing chronic pain is a daily battle for many adults, and the symptoms can be even tougher to control in children and teens. Interestingly, new research published in Health Psychology suggests that adolescent pain may be linked to previous experiences with pain, and if we can improve these initial experiences, children may be less likely to experience future pain.

It may sound complicated, but the research wanted to see if there was a link between a previous pain experience and how pain is felt and managed in the future. To do this, researchers examined children who had undergone a major surgery, as these experiences, even if they go as expected, may be traumatic to the child and are likely accompanied with some pain or discomfort.

“This is not to say that every child who has chronic pain had a surgery that led to it,” said study author Melanie Noel. “Rather, it’s that surgery is the only context where we can catch these kids before they develop chronic pain. We know that 15 to 20 per cent of children who undergo these major surgeries will develop chronic pain. So, if we can catch them early and begin to understand the factors leading to their chronic pain, maybe we can prevent it from happening in the first place.”

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that a child’s memories of pain following major surgery actually influenced their recovery and was associated with an increased risk of the development of chronic pain down the road.

“We’ve discovered that the way children are remembering their pain is an underlying factor in the development of chronic pain,” Noel explained. “It’s not the pain they actually experience so much as the way they process those memories of the pain which is driving whether or not they’re improving, right around the time that pain can transition into chronic pain. At a certain point, these children should be feeling better but those who develop chronic pain are not.”

Managing Adolescent Chronic Pain

The study, which was conducted in Canada, suggests that anywhere from 15-40 percent of Canadian children experience chronic pain at some point during their childhood. Moreover, 60 percent of these children eventually develop chronic pain in adulthood, so it’s important to control chronic pain while kids are young to prevent it from becoming a problem when they’re older.

Researchers believe the findings can help point doctors and parents towards solutions. They believe that psychological and language-based interventions may be able to help kids better cope with post-surgical pain, which will help re-frame their memories of the pain and in turn decrease their likelihood of developing chronic pain in adulthood.

“We can teach kids how to reminisce and talk about their pain experiences in a way that emphasizes anything positive about it,” said Noel. “Maybe the child coped with something well, maybe there was a really friendly nurse. It’s getting them to talk about things that aren’t just focused on the awful after effects of the surgery. It’s a way of catching it, a talk-based intervention that can possibly re-frame the memories. This may actually alter the pain trajectory. It’s one thing we can do to make the recovery and future experiences of pain better.”

This is fascinating research, and I hope the findings are considered by pain professionals when helping children get to the bottom of their chronic pain.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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