Teaching Children How to Cope with Pain

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

Summer is upon us and so is trauma season. Emergency room visits for children with traumatic injuries can double during the summer. Potential injuries range from insect and animal bites to serious bicycle and ATV injuries.

This means parents will be on the front line, triaging each event to determine which injury needs medical treatment and which requires "only" emotional support.

A mother recently asked newspaper advice columnist Amy Dickinson about the best way to handle her toddler's pain. The mother was seeking suggestions from a stranger because she disagreed with her husband’s approach. She wanted to learn the "right" way to respond to her child's injuries.


The mother said she felt the need to provide the hurt child with ice packs and hugs, regardless of the extent of the injury, because that felt nurturing and productive.

On the other hand, the father thought his wife was making too big of a deal out of their child's pain. He believed that coddling children deprived them of the opportunity to grow into self-sufficient, resilient adults.

The columnist advised the mother that "tender gestures are an important part of parenting." Show your children that you care about their pain, Dickinson suggested, but don't turn each incident into a melodrama.

The mother's question grabbed my attention, because treating a child's pain is an omnipresent issue with far-reaching implications. By the time they reach age five, children have developed the way they will address adversity for the rest of their lives. Obviously, how a parent responds to a child’s injury -- their attitudes and behaviors -- is part of the culture that helps children form that foundation.

Options in Soothing a Child’s Pain

An overly doting, anxious parent can reinforce a hyperbolic response to pain that has little to do with the actual injury. A small "ouchie" can become a catastrophic event, and that may contribute to learned anxiety and the perception of greater pain.

On the other hand, ignoring an injury can lead to more aggressive attention-seeking behavior. Children need to know that an empathetic adult cares, even if the injury is relatively minor. Feeling safe positively influences a child's experience of adversity.

Children who have the emotional and cognitive ability to understand and determine their response to an injury generally suffer less. This is self-efficacy, and it allows the child to feel in control.

It's important to help children master their response to pain in age-appropriate ways. Of course, you comfort your pre-verbal children with a calm, measured voice and attitude. When children can communicate verbally, you can begin asking them whether their injury is a big one or small one. Then ask the children how they can make themselves feel better. This is how to nurture their resilience.

Accepting Pain

Experts who study why some people seem to handle pain better than others believe that acceptance plays a major role. There are two kinds of acceptance: acceptance with resignation and acceptance with resilience. 

Acceptance with resignation, or learned helplessness, steals hope more thoroughly than pain itself can do. A resigned person feels incapable of solving the problem and simply gives up.

Acceptance with resilience, on the other hand, makes it possible for a person to reinvent himself or herself to resolve the problem.

Children must learn how to accept pain with resilience so they can quickly, and without drama, move on from it. This requires a mutually caring relationship with the parent or guardian.

Big hurts, medium hurts, and small hurts may require different treatment, but not necessarily a different emotional response. Fundamentally, children must realize that everyday hurts are problems with solutions.

I recently watched my daughter instinctively demonstrate this behavior. My granddaughter, Gracie, fell and bumped her knee. The three-year-old began to cry. My daughter then asked Gracie: “is it a "big ouchie" or a "small ouchie?"

The question redirected Gracie’s attention. To my surprise, Gracie answered in a soft and shaky voice, “a small one.” Gracie received a hug from her mom and seemed to forget about the incident.

The Goal Is a Resilient Child

Pain is part of growing up. Parents cannot prevent injuries from occurring with their children, but they can model how to accept the injury with resilience.

To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we have the power to choose our response to adversity. Relying on ourselves gives us control over our behaviors and happiness.

When parents can model self-efficacy without dismissing a child’s fears or insecurities; the result will be a resilient child who is able to experience pain as part of life, but not mistake it for life itself. 


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Prenatal Use of Acetaminophen Linked to Early Puberty

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The daughters of women who took acetaminophen during pregnancy tend to start puberty early, according to a new study by Danish researchers.  

The study is the latest indication that prenatal use of acetaminophen – more commonly known as paracetamol outside the U.S. -- can have long term effects on children.

Researchers at Aarhus University studied health data on about 100,000 Danish women who provided detailed information about their use of acetaminophen during pregnancy.

Nearly 16,000 children born to those mothers between 2000 and 2003 were followed from the age of eleven and throughout puberty, with surveys every six months about different aspects of their development.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that girls on average entered puberty between one-and-a-half and three months earlier if their mothers took the over-the-counter pain reliever for more than 12 weeks during pregnancy.


"We found a 'dose-response' correlation. That is to say, the more weeks with paracetamol during pregnancy, the earlier puberty in girls, but not in boys," says lead author Andreas Ernst, a PhD student from the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University.

"While entering puberty one-and-a-half to three months earlier may seem unimportant, when taken together with the frequent use of paracetamol during pregnancy, our findings ought to make people take notice. Our results are certainly not the decisive factor that should change current practice, but the perception of paracetamol as 'the safe and harmless choice' during pregnancy ought to be challenged."

Early puberty development increases the risk of serious diseases in adulthood, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and testicular and breast cancer.

The use of acetaminophen (paracetamol) has been increasing worldwide and studies have found that over half of pregnant women in the U.S. and European Union use the pain reliever at least once during their pregnancy. It is the active ingredient in Tylenol, Excedrin, and hundreds of pain medications.

Previous research has shown that prenatal use of acetaminophen is associated with slow language development, autism and attention deficit problems in young children.

Over 50 million people in the U.S. use acetaminophen each week to treat pain and fever. The pain reliever has long been associated with liver injury and allergic reactions such as skin rash. The FDA label for products containing acetaminophen warns about the risk of liver damage and other side effects but does not specifically warn pregnant women about using the pain reliever. The agency said in 2015 that the evidence was “too limited” to justify such a warning.  

In its 2016 opioid prescribing guidelines, the CDC recommends acetaminophen as an alternative to opioid pain medication. The guideline only briefly mentions that acetaminophen is involved in hundreds of overdose deaths annually and can cause liver problems.

The CDC guideline does warn pregnant women -- at length -- that opioids can cause birth defects, poor fetal growth, still births and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.

FDA: Opioid Cold Meds Too Risky for Kids

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Food and Drug Administration has ordered stronger warning labels for cough and cold medications containing opioids and said they should no longer be prescribed to patients younger than 18. The agency also signaled it that it could enact new limits on the dose and duration of other types of opioid prescriptions.

“Given the epidemic of opioid addiction, we’re concerned about unnecessary exposure to opioids, especially in young children. We know that any exposure to opioid drugs can lead to future addiction,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD. “It’s become clear that the use of prescription, opioid-containing medicines to treat cough and cold in children comes with serious risks that don’t justify their use in this vulnerable population.”

The FDA action involves nine different types of cough and cold medicines, four of which contain codeine and five that have hydrocodone. The brand names include Tuxarin ER, Tuzistra XR, Triacin C, FlowTuss and Zutripro. Several of the medications also come in generic form.

The FDA said it conducted an extensive review of the products and convened a panel of pediatric experts, who said the risk of misuse, abuse and addiction outweighed the benefits in patients younger than 18.


“These products will no longer be indicated for use in children, and their use in this age group is not recommended.  Health care professionals should reassure parents that cough due to a cold or upper respiratory infection is self-limited and generally does not need to be treated.  For those children in whom cough treatment is necessary, alternative medicines are available,” the FDA said in a statement.

The agency also ordered stronger “Black Box” warning labels on opioid cough and cold medicines to make them more consistent with safety warnings that come with opioid pain medications.

‘Too Many People Prescribed Opioids’

The FDA this week also released its 2018 Strategic Policy Roadmap, which outlines four priority areas in the year ahead.

The agency's first goal is to reduce the abuse of opioid medication. The FDA said opioid addiction and overdoses were claiming lives at a “staggering rate” of 91 deaths every day – although it failed to point out that most of those deaths involve illegal opioids such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, not prescription pain medication. Also unmentioned in the “roadmap” is that opioid prescriptions have been declining since 2010.

“Too many people are being inappropriately prescribed opioid drugs. When these prescriptions are written, they are often for long durations of use that create too much opportunity for addiction to develop,” the FDA said.

“We need to take steps to reduce exposure to opioid drugs by helping to make sure that patients are prescribed these drugs only when properly indicated, and that when prescriptions are written, they are for dosages and durations of use that comport closely with the purpose of the prescription.” 

Several states have already enacted limits on opioid prescriptions for acute, short term pain. Minnesota, for example, recently adopted strict new guidelines that limit the initial supply of opioids for acute pain to just three days. 

Acetaminophen May Slow Language Development

By Pat Anson, Editor

Another study has linked acetaminophen to learning difficulties in young children born to mothers who used the over-the-counter pain reliever during pregnancy.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City say toddlers exposed to acetaminophen in the womb had a slower rate of language development at 30 months. The findings are consistent with other studies reporting higher rates of autism, attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and behavioral problems in children born to mothers who used acetaminophen while pregnant.  

Acetaminophen (paracetamol) is one of the most widely used pain relievers in the world. It is the active ingredient in Tylenol, Excedrin, and hundreds of other pain medications. Researchers say over half the pregnant women in the United States and European Union use the drug.


“Given the prevalence of prenatal acetaminophen use and the importance of language development, our findings, if replicated, suggest that pregnant women should limit their use of this analgesic during pregnancy,” said senior author Shanna Swan, PhD, Professor of Environmental and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“It’s important for us to look at language development because it has shown to be predictive of other neurodevelopmental problems in children.”

The study involved 754 women who enrolled in the Swedish Environmental Longitudinal, Mother and Child, Asthma and Allergy study (SELMA) during weeks 8-13 of their pregnancy. Researchers asked the women to report the number of acetaminophen tablets they took between conception and enrollment, and tested the acetaminophen concentration in their urine.

A delay in a child's language development, defined as the use of fewer than 50 words at 30 months of age, was measured by a nurse and a follow-up questionnaire filled out by the mothers.

Girls born to mothers with high exposure -- those who took acetaminophen more than six times in early pregnancy -- were nearly six times more likely to have language delay than girls born to mothers who did not take acetaminophen.

While the number of acetaminophen tablets and concentration in urine were associated with a significant increase in language delay in girls, there was only a slight increase in boys.  The findings suggest that acetaminophen use in pregnancy results in the loss of the well-recognized female advantage in language development in early childhood.

The study is published online in the journal European Psychiatry. Researchers will follow-up with the children and re-examine their language development at age seven.

A 2016 study of over 2,600 Spanish women linked acetaminophen to autism and attention deficit problems in their children. Studies in Denmark and New Zealand have also linked acetaminophen to a higher risk of ADHD.

Over 50 million people in the U.S. use acetaminophen each week to treat pain and fever. The pain reliever has long been associated with liver injury and allergic reactions such as skin rash. In the U.S. over 50,000 emergency room visits each year are caused by acetaminophen, including 25,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.

FDA Bans Use of Codeine and Tramadol in Children

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tightening restrictions on the use of codeine and tramadol in young children.

The agency says the opioid medications carry "serious risks" for children under the age of 12, including slowed or difficult breathing and possibly even death. The FDA is also recommending against the use of codeine and tramadol by breastfeeding mothers due to possible harm to their infants.

Codeine is approved to treat mild pain and cough, while tramadol is used to treat moderate pain. Codeine is usually combined with other medicines, such as acetaminophen, in prescription pain medication, as well as in some over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold remedies. The FDA action only applies to prescription codeine.

"We know that some children who received codeine or tramadol have experienced life-threatening respiratory depression and death because they metabolize these medicines much faster than usual, casing dangerously high levels of active drug in their bodies," said Doug Throckmorton, MD, deputy director for regulatory programs, at the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

"This is especially concerning in children under 12 years of age and adolescents who are obese or have conditions that may increase the risk of breathing problems, like obstructive sleep apnea or lung disease. Respiratory depression can also occur in nursing babies, when mothers who are ultra-rapid metabolizers take these types of medicines and pass it along to their children through their breast milk."

In a review of adverse event reports from 1969 to 2015, the FDA said it identified 64 cases of serious breathing problems, including 24 deaths, with codeine-containing medicines in children younger than 18. The agency also identified nine cases of serious breathing problems, including three deaths, with the use of tramadol by children.

The majority of serious side effects with both codeine and tramadol occurred in children younger than 12, and some cases occurred after a single dose.

The FDA is requiring drug makers to add a tougher warning to the labels of codeine and tramadol products, alerting healthcare providers and parents that codeine should not be used to treat pain or cough and tramadol should not be used to treat pain in children younger than 12.

The new labeling also cautions against their use in adolescents between 12 and 18 who are obese or have conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea or severe lung disease. Breastfeeding mothers will also be warned not to use the medications.

The FDA said it is considering additional regulatory action for the OTC codeine products that are available in some states. It is also considering an FDA Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the role of prescription opioid cough-and-cold medicines, including codeine, to treat cough in children.

The agency did not recommend or suggest any alternatives to codeine and tramadol to treat childrens' cough or pain. OTC medicines such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also have risks and side effects.

"We understand that there are limited options when it comes to treating pain or cough in children, and that these changes may raise some questions for health care providers and parents. However, please know that our decision today was made based on the latest evidence and with this goal in mind: keeping our kids safe," said Throckmorton.

In 2015, the FDA approved the use of OxyContin in children ages 11 to 16  who are in severe pain, a move widely panned by addiction treatment activists who claimed kids would get easily hooked on the painkiller. 

Keeping Kids Safe from Medical Marijuana

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

Frequently, someone will mention to me that they want to medicate with cannabis but won’t even consider trying it due to their children living in the house.

I can certainly understand their concern, but feel there are still ways to administer the medication, get control of your pain and also keep your children safe.

What are the biggest concerns a parent has about using marijuana around children?

  1. The danger of cannabis getting into the children’s hands.
  2. The smell from smoking marijuana alerting children to what you have in the house.
  3. The still lingering issues of society’s judgment of it

How can you comfortably still make use of cannabis with children in the house?

As with all medications kept at home, you always have to be alert for the safety of children. Cannabis is no different. For any medication, parents (and grandparents) should consider locking it up to keep it out of the wrong hands. 

To still be able to enjoy the benefits of marijuana, but without the smell, there are ways to administer it that are just as successful as smoking. Many wrongly assume that is the only way you can use it. 

I only take cannabis as an oil. It is kept in a medicine bottle, measured out nightly and mixed with some applesauce. This is not something that children are attracted to. I always make sure it is a secure spot. I sleep through most nights and generally during the day never need to take any other forms of the cannabis, since it continues to offer me benefits from the nightly teaspoon.

Another effective option is to use it topically. The results are soothing and have shown tremendous relief, even for those suffering with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). We make ours with a peppermint oil extract added to mask the smell. The peppermint also helps  open the pores in the skin to allow for absorption.

Tinctures containing cannabis can be made in either a glycerin or alcohol base. They can be stored in a medicine bottle and used as frequently as needed. One simple teaspoon in the cheek or under the tongue allows for absorption and pain relief. You can also take cannabis as a pill or suppository, and many have learned to make it as a drink or steeped as a tea. 

For more on the different ways to use cannabis, see my column: “How to Use Medical Marijuana Without Smoking.”

Finally, as far as societal judgement goes, as your children grow older, it doesn’t hurt to be honest with them about the benefits you have found from using cannabis to improve the quality of your life.  It is no different than any illness you are coping with where there is a need to medicate. As time progresses, this conversation will get easier as society embraces this safe alternative.

If you are one of those people who is putting the benefits of medical cannabis on hold because of your children, you might want to reconsider your options and allow yourself the relief you need. Remember, unless you take too much, you do not experience the high that people associate with marijuana. A body in pain does not react to marijuana like a body using it socially. You get pain relief and the others get the high.

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Is Chronic Pain a Family Affair?

By Pat Anson, Editor

We can credit – or blame – our parents for many things, including our eye color, hair color, height, weight, personality, even our cravings for certain foods.

And if our parents have chronic pain, we are also more likely to suffer from pain ourselves, according to research recently published in the journal Pain. 

“Offspring of parents with chronic pain are at increased risk for pain and adverse mental and physical health outcomes,” wrote co-authors Amanda Stone of Vanderbilt University and Anna Wilson of Oregon Health & Science University.

"Although the association between chronic pain in parents and offspring has been established, few studies have addressed why or how this relation occurs."

Stone and Wilson developed a “conceptual model” of how chronic pain can be transmitted from parent to child through genes, parenting, stress, and lifestyle choices.

"Such a framework highlights chronic pain as inherently familial and intergenerational, opening up avenues for new models of intervention and prevention that can be family-centered and include at-risk children," they wrote.

The researchers identify five "plausible mechanisms" to explain the transmission of chronic pain from parent to child:

  • Genetics. Children of parents with chronic pain might be at increased genetic risk for sensory as well as psychological components of pain. Research suggests that genetic factors account for about half of the risk of chronic pain in adults.
  • Early Neurobiological Development. Having a parent with chronic pain may affect the functioning of the nervous system during critical periods of child development. For example, a baby's development might be affected by the mother's stress levels or behavior during and after pregnancy.
  • Social Learning. Children may learn "maladaptive pain behaviors" from parents, such as catastrophizing and excessive worrying about pain.
  • Parenting and Health Habits. Chronic pain risk could be affected by parenting behaviors linked to adverse child outcomes--for example, permissive parenting or lack of consistency and warmth. The parents' physical activity level and other health habits might also play a role.
  • Exposure to Stress. There may be adverse effects from growing up in stressful circumstances related to chronic pain -- for example, financial problems or parents' inability to perform daily tasks.

Other factors that may explain why some children are at greater risk include chronic pain in both parents, the location of the parent's pain, and the children's personal temperament.

"The outlined mechanisms, moderators, and vulnerabilities likely interact over time to influence the development of chronic pain and related outcomes," wrote Stone and Wilson, who hope their model will help guide future research toward developing early prevention and treatment approaches for children at risk of chronic pain.

Poor Fitness Leads to Childhood Pain

Another recent study in Finland found that poor physical fitness and sedentary behavior are linked to pain in children as young as 6-8 years of age.

The Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) study at the University of Eastern Finland analyzed the physical fitness, exercise, hobbies, body fat and various pain conditions in 439 children. Physically unfit children suffered from headaches more frequently than others. High amounts of screen time and other sedentary behavior were also associated with increased prevalence of pain conditions.

“Pain experienced in childhood and adolescence often persists later in life. This is why it is important to prevent chronic pain, recognize the related risk factors and address them early on. Physical fitness in childhood and introducing pause exercises to the hobbies of physically passive children could prevent the development of pain conditions,” the study found.