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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.