Pain Management and Children
What are the causes and effects of pain?
Pain management is an important concern for a child with cancer or other pain-causing
diseases. When a child has cancer, one of his or her greatest fears, and the fear
of parents, is pain. Every effort should be made to ease the pain during the treatment
Pain is a sensation of discomfort, distress, or agony. Because pain is unique to each
person, a child's pain can't be measured with a lab test or imaging study. Healthcare
providers can evaluate a child's pain by observing him or her and asking about it.
There are a number of tools and methods available to help assess pain in children.
Pain may be acute or chronic. Acute pain is severe and lasts a relatively short time.
It is usually a sign that body tissue is being injured in some way. The pain generally
disappears when the injury heals. Chronic pain may range from mild to severe, and
is present to some degree for long periods of time.
Many people believe that if a person has been diagnosed with cancer, they must be
in pain. This is not necessarily the case, and, when pain is present, it can be reduced
or even prevented. Pain management is an important area to talk with your child's doctor
as soon as a cancer diagnosis is suspected.
Pain may be from the cancer or for other reasons. Children can normally have headaches,
general discomfort, pains, and muscle strains as part of being a child. Not every
pain a child expresses is from the cancer, or is being caused by the cancer.
Cancer pain may depend on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, and how well
your child can tolerate pain. Cancer pain that lasts several days or longer may result
Pain from a tumor that is growing, or pain from a tumor that is pressing on body organs,
nerves, or bones
Poor blood flow because the cancer has blocked blood vessels
Blockage of an organ or tube in the body
Cancer cells that have spread to other sites in the body (metastasis)
Infection or inflammation
Side effects from chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery
Stiffness from inactivity
Psychological responses to illness, such as tension, depression, or anxiety
Severe developmental delay increases risk for sensory and neuropathic pain
What is pharmacological pain management?
Pediatric oncology clinics usually offer several options for any procedure that may
be painful, such as a bone marrow aspiration or lumbar puncture. There are many types
of medicines and several methods used in giving them, from very temporary (10 minute)
mild sedation, to full general anesthesia in the operating room. Pain medicine is
usually given in one of the following ways:
Orally (by swallowing)
Intravenously (IV), through a needle in a vein or marrow in a long bone
By a catheter in the back
Through a patch on the skin
Examples of pharmacological pain relief include the following:
Mild pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
Opioid analgesics, such as morphine and oxycodone
Sedation (usually given by IV)
Topical anesthetics (cream or patches put on the skin to numb the area)
Adjuvant pain relievers such as antidepressants or anticonvulsants for nerve pain
Steroids for enlarged liver or swelling in the brain.
Radiation or bisphosphonates for bone pain
Some children build up a tolerance to sedatives and pain relievers. Over time, doses
may need to increase or the choice of medicines may need to change. Fear of addiction
to narcotics is common among families. It is important to understand that the ultimate
goals are comfort, function, and overall quality of life, which means taking steps
to assure the child is free from pain. There is no evidence of addiction to pain medicines
in children being treated for cancer.
What is nonpharmacological pain management?
Nonpharmacological pain management is the management of pain without medicines. This
method utilizes ways to alter thinking and focus to decrease pain. Methods include:
Psychological. The unexpected is always worse because of what one imagines. If the
child is prepared and can anticipate what will happen to him or her, his or her stress
level will be much lower. Ways to do this include:
Explain each step of a procedure in detail, utilizing simple pictures or diagrams
Meet with the person who will do the procedure and allow your child to ask questions
ahead of time.
Tour the room where the procedure will take place.
Teens may watch a video, which describes the procedure, while small children can "play"
the procedure on a doll, or watch a "demonstration" on a doll.
Hypnosis. With hypnosis, a professional (such as a psychologist or doctor) guides
the child into an altered state of consciousness that helps him or her to focus or
narrow his or her attention, to reduce discomfort.
Imagery. Guiding a child through an imaginary mental image of sights, sounds, tastes,
smells, and feelings can often help shift attention away from the pain.
Distraction. Distraction can be helpful particularly for babies by using colorful,
moving objects. Singing songs, telling stories, or looking at books or videos can
distract preschoolers. Older children find watching TV or listening to music helpful.
Distraction should not be a substitute for explaining what to expect.
Relaxation. Children can be guided through relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing
and stretching, to reduce discomfort.
Other nonpharmacological pain management may use alternative therapies, such as acupuncture,
massage, or biofeedback, to ease discomfort.
Each child experiences pain differently. It is important to tailor a pain treatment
plan based on each child’s needs. Finding the best plan often requires testing a variety
of treatments by trial and error.