Help! My kid is in pain! How do I talk about it with him or her? (Part 2)

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It is not fun for anyone when kids, ‘tweens, or teens have pain. In an age group whose sole responsibility is learning, play, and exploration, pain can really get in the way of these things sometimes.

My favorite line is “My kid (or my friend’s) ’tween/teen hurts! What does this mean and what do we do about it?

In case you missed Part 1 of this blog series, I outlined what it means and why kids have pain. Since you’re probably proactive like me (otherwise, why would you be reading this?), let’s move on to “what to do about it.”

First and foremost-it is essential to give kids the opportunity to describe pain in based on their established communication skills. As mentioned in Part 1, many kids simply agree with what adults tell them to say about pain, while others learn metaphors of describing pain that don’t agree with their age or experience level. Example: the 11 year old who states her knee pain is “bone on bone” feeling. She’s too young to be using that metaphor appropriately. Most confusingly–some kids are too young to understand metaphors or communicate about their pain at all.

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Keep it age-appropriate:

  • Very young kids (ages 0-3): Pay attention to body language, behavior, play activity, and body mechanics. It is less likely that kids in this age group will misinterpret pain or use it as “manipulation” to get something they want. They also will be less likely to discuss it in any detail with an adult. Use the FLACC pain scale to quantify your observations.

    this scale is commonly used in babies and toddlers who cannot communicate their feelings. It is also used in other older patients who may have conditions that challenge their ability to communicate with caregivers.

    This scale is commonly used in babies and toddlers who cannot communicate their feelings. It is also used in other older patients who may have conditions that challenge their ability to communicate with caregivers.

  • Preschool (3-5): if they are old enough to draw, have them draw how they feel. Use toys, dolls, or stuffed animals to have the child act out their feelings. Use the FLACC or FACES pain scale depending on their ability to communicate their feelings.

    This scale is appropriate for children who can communicate using pictures, usually up to about age 10.

    This scale is appropriate for children who can communicate using pictures, usually up to about age 10.

  • Elementary school age (6-10): Continue to use drawing and acting as needed. You can start to give suggestions of metaphors to describe the pain. Example: have the child stretch a non-painful body part & feel the sensation of “muscle stretch.” Ask them if the pain feels like that (stretch, pull sensation). Most children at this age know of bruises and cuts (dull, sharp), so you can ask them if it feels like that. Older elementary school kids have a better understanding of muscle soreness, so you can ask if the pain is reminiscent of how they feel after a hard day in PE when their legs may be tired (soreness, throbbing). It’s still important to let them use their own words. The FACES scale is most appropriate for this age group, even up to age 10.
  • Middle school (11-14): Believe it or not, ‘tweens and teens in this age group sometimes have the hardest time describing their pain. They are transitioning from “kid role” into more “teen & adult” roles, which often leads to confusion they don’t even know they’re experiencing. They are balancing the desire to please adults with the desire to gain independence, test limits and rules with adults. Anxiety normally increases with puberty, middle school social pressures, and a rapid developing brain and emotional regulation system. Plus kids are often rapidly growing while participating seriously in one or more sports. It’s a perfect storm—and all of these things often lead to increased pain, injuries, and problems in this age group. Be very gentle when communicating with ‘tweens and teens. The numeric pain rating scale is appropriate but it’s important to understand that kids in this age group may report pain differently depending on where they are emotionally, cognitively, hormonally, and socially.
  • PainScale
  • High school & College (14-22): You thought young kids and middle school were challenging to understand pain? Welcome to adolescence and early adulthood! While teens and young twentysomethings are much more capable of complex thought processes and may have more experience with pain, they still may not be very adept at processing on how to communicate their symptoms with someone else. We also strike a dichotomy where many adolescents continue to aim to please adults, while others want nothing to do with adults. You know that teen—the one who thinks they know way more than you because they took high school anatomy and are chemistry whizzes. Or you have the teen (usually girl) who is unable or afraid to appear knowledgeable about her body. See my blog on this very subject here. She’s in 7 AP classes and aced the SAT, but has spent so much time becoming book smart that she has developed zero body awareness. She literally cannot tell you what is wrong with her, just that “it hurts, and I don’t know why.” You can talk calculus with her with ease, but getting info from her about her body is like pulling teeth. The numeric pain rating scale is appropriate for this age group, but bear in mind you’ll also have the teen/young adult who swears the pain is a 10/10 while maintaining a smile and seeming relatively at ease. See what I mean about not being able to communicate or understand pain?
  • When in doubt, have them use an emoji, since this is becoming the new language of kids, 'tweens, and teens!

    When all else fails, have your child, ‘tween, or teen communicate with emojis since this is probably their new favorite language.

Keep your game face on

Do not—-I repeat—-do NOT project your own fear and feelings about your child’s or your friend’s child’s pain onto him or her. This may be the hardest part, because I know this is not easy on you, either. Keep calm, maintain your game face, be objective and matter of fact, and help him or her exercise his or her own independence. This doesn’t mean you should avoid showing compassion or caring. Let him or her know that you’re concerned and will do whatever it takes to help him or her through it. This also doesn’t mean it’s not ok to be worried. This is normal and natural for you! Worry and cry about it in the comfort of your own private space.

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Leave the doctoring to the doctors

Stop it with consulting Dr. Google or posting on facebook about it already. This only adds to overdramatizing something that may or may not be dramatic. Consult a medical professional!

Emergencies are emergencies and cannot wait

If it’s clearly deformed, the skin is open and bleeding/oozing, the child or teen cannot put weight on the body part, it appears infected, or your inner voice says “something just doesn’t seem right”-please consult urgent or emergency care! See more on this in Part 3 (coming soon!).

Sometimes there is just not a straightforward diagnosis

If it has been ongoing for a long time, the child or teen has had every test in the book, and there’s still no medical answer, consider the role of your child’s perception of the situation along with his or her emotional processing. It is exhausting and confusing for him or her to go through the rigmarole of myriad tests and physician visits. Cut your losses and consider consulting a functional/integrative medicine practitioner, pediatric pain psychologist, or physical therapist who specializes in chronic pain in kids and teens. Chances are, your child or teen is so burnt out on medical visits that he or she has now integrated a “sick” personality: seemingly more depressed, detached, disinterested in normal age activities, less successful at school and sports. He or she subconsciously realizes the attention they get from being “sick” or “broken” and this becomes part of who they are. Trust me on this one!

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Keep it kid and teen specific, no matter what age they are

Remember that kids, ‘tweens, teens and young adults process pain very differently than you do, as do their developing bodies. Not all adult treatments that may work for you are appropriate for them, even when you swear by them. Let a medical professional, particularly a physical therapist who specializes in pediatric and adolescent injuries, pain, and psychology, make the decision for you on who or what to consult to help your child. Just because Johnny is 18 does not mean he is ready for an adult practitioner. Honor and consider that as you navigate his care.

Let someone else play quarterback

Let a medical professional skilled in dealing with acute pain and ongoing/chronic issues sort through this one and manage all the specialists and/or therapists you may need to see. It’s hard enough to be a rock star parent and it can really wear on you to try and be the manager of your child’s or teen’s health. Let the professionals play “quarterback” to manage the child or teen’s case. Most importantly and often not discussed-consider speaking with a family therapist or life coach to help you cope. It is completely natural, normal, and expected for it to hurt or stress you when you have to put on your smile/game face when your child or teen is suffering. Don’t be a hero—get help for yourself too. There is no shame in doing so and it’ll really pay off in the long run!

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Have resources nearby to help them understand and cope with their bodies

Stay tuned for a future post on helpful books and websites for all youth injuries, conditions, and pains. See Part 1 for examples of 2 books that are appropriate for parents of kids of all ages and middle school age and up. Some other helpful titles are Look Inside Your Body (Louie Stowell/Usborne books) , Magic School Bus: Inside Your Body (Joanna Cole), Understanding Myself (Mary C Lamia, Ph.D.), Sammy’s Physical Therapy Adventure (Michael Fink, PT, DPT), and the Be the Boss of Your Body Series (Be the Boss of Your Pain, Be the Boss of Your Stress, Be Fit, Be Strong Be You (Rebecca Kajander CPNP, MPH and Timothy Culbert, MD)

be fit be strong

Now that you know exactly how to communicate with your child or teen about his or her pain, you’re ready to take the steps to get him or her the right care depending on what is the problem. See Part 3 to understand the problem and determine where best to seek the appropriate care.

Disclaimer:

In an effort to conserve each person’s personal experience and beliefs about how to care for and deal with pain, I offer a bit of advice from the pediatric & adolescent healthcare provider’s perspective. It should be noted that I am not a parent nor do I fully understand all of the complexities and intricacies that go on in each family. Ultimately, how you discuss pain and teach your children and teens to deal with pain is a matter of choice and fully depends on each situation you encounter.

Help! My kid is in pain! What does this mean? (Part 1)

I’d be willing to bet that you generally don’t like to be in pain. I’d be willing to bet more that you really don’t like it when kids and teens are in pain. Chances are, if you are the parent of a young athlete, your child or teen has been in pain at some point in their sports “career.” Maybe you knew what to do about it and your child got better without any problems. Maybe you had no clue and turned to your friends, Dr. Google, or relied on your own steadfast remedy system.

I’ve encountered a gazillion parents who fall all over the map of knowing how best to care for their children’s pain. Sometimes parents make decisions about how to care for a child’s pain that ultimately leads to worsening of the problem. These decisions may be based on an interest to keep a child playing a sport for a number of reasons. On the other hand, some parents fall more into the “hypervigilant” category. These are the parents who fast track their children to the urgent care center every time Johnny or Sarah complains of an ache or pain.

hello kitty band aid

Hello kitty can sometimes make everything better

Despite a parent’s style in caring for pain, one thing all of these parents have in common is that they mean well, regardless of which way they handle each situation. Culture and experience lead people to act in different ways, but there are a few constants that hold true in caring for a child or teen’s pain regardless of one’s background.

Given that I happen to work with young athletes of all ages, I often get questions from patients, colleagues, friends, and family members about pain in their own or their friends’ children. Here is a sampling of the questions I am asked quite frequently:

  • “My 12 year old has been having ankle pain off and on for 3 weeks. She’s been wearing a brace and keeps doing her sport but she says it’s getting worse. When should I panic and do something about it?”
  • “My 8 year old just fell off the monkey bars, says his elbow hurts, and refuses to move his arm. I have 3 meetings I need to attend and he has a baseball game tonight. Can we wait and see how it feels tomorrow?”
  • “My 15 year old’s back has been hurting for 6 months and it’s getting worse. She has bad posture. I told her to stretch and do some yoga with me since that’s what helped me. We also put her on our home traction table, I let her use my TENS unit, and she’s been getting chiropractic adjustments from my chiropractor 3 times per week.”
  • “My friend’s 13 year old has mysterious abdominal pain and has been out of school for 6 months. Nobody can figure out what is wrong with her. Is there another specialist she should see or is this all in her head?”
  • “My 17 year old has hip and groin pain. I think it’s a hip flexor injury. She just needs to stretch her hip flexors and do some Pilates, right? Can you show me some stretches for her to do?”

<Spoiler alert: If any of these situations sound familiar, you’re not alone! We will revisit each of these situations—and what to do about them– in a future blog. Stay tuned!>

Parents, friends, coaches, and kids and teens themselves have lots of questions about how to deal with pain. This can be very confusing, and everyone has an opinion on it. Before we address the somewhat confusing question of how to deal with it or what to do about it, we must first address the possibly more confusing topics of what pain is and what this could mean in a kid or teen.

Defining Pain

The first thing we need to do is define pain. Get ready for a blast back through science class. A person can perceive and experience pain for any number of reasons. According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, Pain is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” What that means is there is not always damage somewhere in the body when pain is present. If that’s the first time you’ve heard that, you’re not alone. What we know about pain barely scratches the surface of what lies beneath the understanding of why it occurs.

Pain is an output from the brain

pain bucket

Pain is an output and sum of all the things that happen to us!

 One thing we do know is that pain is absolutely, positively, 100 percent produced as an output from your brain. See this great youtube video to explain this. While the video is about chronic pain, the same concept applies to just about any type of pain.

Think of the body like an email communication system. You bump your knee, and your ultra-fast email system sends a message through your nervous system to a part of your brain that acts as a switchboard. The switchboard decides if the message is relevant and if it merits being sent on to any other part of the brain. What you need to know about the switchboard is it is not in the conscious part of your brain. If the switchboard deems the message relevant, it sends the message along to your cerebral cortex. This is the part of your brain where you make thoughts, perceptions, and do all the cool, complex processing that makes us human. It’s not until the email message gets to your cortex that your body then decides “oh wow! Bumping my knee hurts!” Thus, it is an output, or a decision, just like any other decision you make.

PainKillers

That pink spot in the middle (the thalamus) is the switchboard. The thalamus intercepts and interprets almost every signal that comes into your brain. This includes stuff like smells, tastes, sounds, thoughts, and signals from organs you may not even know exist!

Now you may be thinking here “Ok Julie, I didn’t decide that I wanted to be in pain.” That’s right. You didn’t. But your conscious brain did. Due to wiring in your brain that you’ve been formulating since before birth-your brain decided whether or not that knee bump was going to be painful. The combination of your life history, culture, environment, previous experience, previous pain and injury, overall health status, emotional status, and many more factors – things that you sense and direct every day—was responsible for deciding if that bumped knee was going to hurt or, well, just feel like you bumped your knee.

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You can think of pain in a kid like a wheel–it’s totally dependent on so many factors. These factors include intrinsic ones (stuff within the kid that can’t change, regardless of what is going on around the kid), and extrinsic factors (stuff that can change–IE the environmental factors going on around the kid).

 Notice that I said perception of pain is based on factors like life experience, previous pain and injury, and emotional status. Those are just a few factors that might make pain perception a little different in kids. Why is that? Kids have less life experience, likely fewer pains and injuries, and emotional and cognitive/thinking statuses that are not fully developed. This makes pain perception very different for them.

If things are going well, most kids experience the occasional bump, bruise, scrape, splinter, or “owie” as my 21-month-old niece likes to call it. Most “kid pain” gets better with a kiss from mom and dad, maybe a band-aid, and encouragement to “shake it off.” Healthy kids without serious problems are often seen to be running, jumping, and playing through pain. It’s not until pain slows them down or changes their behavior that it usually registers on parents’ or coaches’ radars.

pain experience

What this means is that as kids develop, they may not know exactly what is going on with their pain. They often don’t have the experience or previous pain and injury to be able to describe it. This can make it hard for parents, coaches, and healthcare providers to understand how to help them.

Oftentimes kids learn how to describe pain based on what an adult tells them it should feel like. Case in point: I’ve had an 11-year-old tell me that her knee feels like “bone on bone.” In actuality, this is how physicians or patients may describe an extremely arthritic joint in someone who is a middle-aged adult and has lost all cartilage cushioning in the joint. While not impossible, it’s not something that we would typically expect a ‘tween to say. Ask a 7 year old to describe the pain and they will give you a blank stare. They just don’t have the experience, the complex thinking processes, or the knowledge to know how to describe it. Typically they will just agree with whatever an adult says.

Not only do we have the challenge of getting kids to describe what’s going on, but kids’ behavior around pain is also all over the map. Depending on influence from adults, siblings, and friends who may have pain or have loved ones in pain, kids learn how to behave and perceive pain from those around them. Some kids learn from a very young age that pain is scary. They may panic or complain constantly about every ache and pain. They may also learn that being in pain is a way to get support, attention, or avoid an unwanted activity. This would mean the real underlying problem may not actually be related to the pain at all (more on that later).

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Other kids may learn that “being tough” while in pain is admirable and brave. These kids may not complain at all when they probably should be. This means you may have one kid who has a total meltdown over a splinter, and another kid who seems calm and collected over a broken leg. As you may imagine, there’s clearly a fine line to walk here in teaching kids and teens how to cope with pain. We don’t want to panic them, and we don’t want them to be heroic at the expense of hurting themselves more. And even if you think you’re toeing that line just right as a parent or coach, chances are they’re learning about pain coping (and everything else kids, ‘tweens and teens learn) from other outside influences, too.

Needless to say—pain is complex in any person, regardless of age. Add a developing brain, body, and lots of family and sports influence in the young athlete—and we have the potential of launching those complexities to exponential levels.

conquering child's chronic pain

Here’s a great book by Lonnie Zeltzer, MD. It’s technically about chronic pain—but keep in mind “chronic” in a kid could be 2 weeks. It’s a much smaller percentage of the length of their life. These same concepts can apply to kids and teens of all ages, and even those in acute (IE, just happened JUST now) pain.

WHy do I hurt

This book: Why Do I Hurt? by Adriaan Louw, is appropriate for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students. It is written on the patient’s level and really explains pain in a way that fosters understanding. Great for parents and coaches too!

 

Now that you’re armed with more knowledge than you ever wanted to have about what pain is and what it means in a child, teen, or young adult, you’re probably asking–So what do we do about it?

Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn how to address and cope with a child, ‘tween’s, teen’s, or young adult’s pain situation.