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.

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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. 

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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.

Genetic Variation Raises Risk of Post-Traumatic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have chronic pain because of an accident, injury or assault, it could be because you have a genetic variation that makes you more likely to develop post-traumatic pain.

That’s the key finding behind a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers at the University of North Carolina studied over 1,500 people who were admitted to emergency rooms for trauma after a motor vehicle collision.

In addition to genotyping the patients, the researchers assessed their distress immediately after the accident, as well as their pain and post-traumatic stress symptoms six weeks later. Participants with a particular variant in the gene FKBP5 reported more severe pain and distress at follow up.

FKBP5 is a critical regulator of the stress response and affects how we respond to environmental stimuli. Previous studies have shown that certain variants of the gene play a role in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide risk and aggressive behavior.

UNC School of Medicine researchers were the first to show an association between FKBP5 and post-traumatic chronic pain. A 2013 study found that people with a particular variation of the gene are likely to experience more pain after exposure to trauma compared to people who don't have the variant.

The new study by the same research group builds on that discovery by showing that the variation inhibits the regulation of cortisol, a stress hormone that sensitizes peripheral nerves. People with high levels of cortisol are likely to experience more pain.

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"In our current study, we showed that the reason this variant affects chronic pain outcomes is because it alters the ability of FKBP5 to be regulated by a microRNA called miR-320a," said lead author Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, a professor of anesthesiology and an investigator in the UNC Institute for Trauma Recovery.

"In other words, it does not negatively regulate FKBP5, thus causing FKBP5 to be over-expressed. High levels of FKBP5 can be detrimental because it alters natural feedback mechanisms that control circulating cortisol levels."

Linnstaedt says the findings suggest there could be new therapeutic approaches to treating traumatic pain, such as medication that inhibits the activity of FKBP5 or gene editing that alters the variation.

Funding for the UNC study was provided by the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Skin Diseases, The Mayday Fund, a Future Leaders in Pain Grant from The American Pain Society, and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The Link Between Trauma and Chronic Pain

Ann Marie Gaudon, Columnist

It has long been accepted in my field that chronic pain is a frequent outcome of trauma. There is extensive evidence to suggest that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report chronic pain with striking frequency regardless of the nature of the traumatic experience. You don’t need to have been diagnosed with PTSD to be negatively and chronically affected by trauma.

One strong and commonly referred to theoretical model explaining the connection between trauma and chronic pain is known as the Mutual Maintenance Model. A person may respond to reminders of trauma through stress response, which may include avoidant coping (trying to avoid your distress by zoning out with video games or drinking to numb yourself), fatigue and lethargy associated with depression, pain perception elevated by anxiety, and intrusive memories of the trauma itself.

These considerable mental demands limit one’s capacity to control or decrease their physical pain and have the opposite effect of exacerbating and maintaining pain. To put it simply, experiencing pain prompts memories of the trauma, and memories of the trauma prompt experiences of pain.

The end result is that a person is trapped in a vicious cycle whereby the symptoms of trauma and chronic pain interact to produce self-perpetuating psychological distress and physical pain.

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A second model, called the Shared Vulnerability Model, suggests that the interaction of trauma, psychological vulnerability (anxiety, loss of control over thoughts and feelings), and a lowered physiological threshold for alarm reactions all influence negative emotional responses, resulting in the development of PTSD and the co-occurrence of chronic pain.

This chronic arousal of the nervous system may be responsible for the symptoms of both PTSD and chronic pain. There is research which suggests that chronic pain and PTSD are not necessarily distinct from each other, but rather connected and overlapping. The fact that sympathetic activity (the gas pedal to your distress) is increased, and parasympathetic activity (the brake pedal to your distress) is decreased, both in general and in response to trauma-related stimuli, is one of the most robust findings within the PTSD literature.

Disastrous events can strike any of us, at any time in life, and no one is immune. Some events are relational such as a school shooting or a rape, while others are natural disasters like earthquakes or floods. After any distressing or life-threatening event, psychological trauma may set in. One may go on to develop extreme anxiety, depression, anger, or PTSD and may have ongoing problems with sleep, physical pain and even relationships.

Healthy ways of coping include getting support, avoiding alcohol and drugs, seeing loved ones, exercising, enhancing sleep habits, and other methods of self-care. Certainly not everyone with chronic pain has experienced trauma and vice versa. However, there is extensive research to show that PTSD and chronic pain are intimately connected.

Seek an experienced trauma therapist if you feel you are not coping well. Trauma therapy is highly specialized, takes place in healing stages at your pace, and works to re-wire what’s become maladaptive in your brain by laying down new and healthier neural pathways. Click here to see a YouTube video that explains that process.

The work will be hard and challenging, but the good news is that many people heal from trauma and go on to live rich and rewarding lives. Some offer inspiration to others who have also endured life-altering negative experiences.

People become sick and pained, and people also heal. Suffering can skyrocket, and suffering can also take a nosedive. You do the work as if your life depended on it, because experience tells us it often does.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her 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.

Why Human Suffering Should Bother You

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

Patients go to doctors when they have pain and doctors can give them opioid medication to relieve that pain. That should not bother you, because it is a decision made between the physician and the patient.

No doctor has the right to strip a patient of dignity by minimizing or downplaying their pain. We can't become indifferent to the denial of pain, because pain is real. Pain hurts.

A recent column in The Conversation by Dr. Andrew Kolodny bothers me because of two sentences:

"They (opioids) are also helpful when used for a couple of days after major surgery or a serious accident. Unfortunately, the bulk of the opioid prescriptions in the U.S. are for common conditions, like back pain," wrote Kolodny, who is a psychiatrist, not a pain management doctor.

Let’s look at the different ways that Dr. Kolodny is minimizing pain:

Postoperative Pain: A large study recently found that long-term opioid use after surgery is rare. Yet some patients are now being denied opioids after major surgery because of fears they might become addicted. Patients should ask questions about how their postop pain will be treated before surgery and get another surgeon if no opioids are to be offered. Patients do not have to allow a surgeon to minimize their pain.

Trauma:  Serious accidents cause severe trauma. Severe trauma can take months, years or decades to alleviate, leaving patients with chronic pain through no fault of their own. Many are burned, disfigured, scarred, disabled, have a pain syndrome, use a wheelchair, and go on disability or Medicare. 

We cannot allow ourselves to minimize any degree of pain that leads to suffering, less zest for living, and lower quality of life.

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Back Pain: Millions of people have low back pain and the added mental health stress that often comes with it, which costs the U.S. economy $100-200 billion in lost workdays and productivity annually. Don't minimize their pain, either!

Treating Pain:  No doctor who witnesses a patient suffering in an emergency room, operating room or intensive care unit should minimize their pain. I've worked in all three as a board certified anesthesiologist and intensive care unit doctor, and am a witness to how an Ivy League university, private clinic, free clinic, county hospital, women's hospital, and Veterans Administration hospitals treat severe pain that may never, ever get better. I'm also a witness as a rebel patient who was offered acetaminophen and ibuprofen for my postop pain.

Physician judgment: Many patients with chronic pain are disabled and legally protected from discrimination. They have failed other therapies and deserve opioid medication for quality of life. They are not bad people, and they have not done anything wrong. Nevertheless, they are often treated like "today's lepers," as Dr. Thomas Kline says. So don't minimize their pain.

Patient Perspective: While on opioids, many chronic pain patients can get out of bed, work a job and keep their families together. They aren't addicts, do not sell their pills, steal money from others to get more, are not estranged from their families for a “drug problem,” and have never had naloxone used on them.

If they are lucky enough to still get an opioid prescription, many are being treated like criminals with rigors that do not stand on evidence-based medicine. They are forced to sign pain contracts, undergo drug tests, and then deal with pharmacy restrictions. Even with pills in hand, it is often not enough. There is an epidemic of undertreated chronic pain, so don't minimize the patient.

Patient Outcome: Unilateral withdrawal or sudden tapering of opioid therapy leads to patient suffering, sleep loss and decreased quality of life. A patient can become bedridden, depressed, and some have committed suicide! It all starts with non-validation of pain.

The Doctor's Oath

No doctor has a right to label, stigmatize, minimize or abandon a patient, much less a patient in pain. To stay clear of this, every medical student is taught to preserve patient dignity and autonomy. Nevertheless, patients are being withdrawn from opioid therapy all over America today, and it is being done by doctors who minimize pain, break the physician-patient bond, and dishonor the Hippocratic Oath.

We've known for over 150 years that doctors commit suicide twice as often as other professions. I think the current situation truly bothers most compassionate doctors, who will be struggling even more in the years to come with physician burnout syndrome. We could see even more suicides by medical students and physicians. 

Doctors are supposed to save lives, and it is just as important to save quality of life. Without quality of life, it is entirely human to have moments when death seems to be the only option out of a life of suffering. Doctors need to keep patients away from having suicidal thoughts, especially if their illness is something that modern medicine can take care of and is severely undertreated, like pain.

It is important to the public in general, and to patients who are disabled in particular, that everyone understands that there are doctors who work night and day for patients who are in pain. We are passionate about it because doctors are healers and no one is ever going to change the meaning of being a real doctor.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw the revised version of the Hippocratic Oath by the World Medical Association. Two important sentences depict how doctors should be responding to pain and their patients:

“I WILL RESPECT the autonomy and dignity of my patient."

"I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat."

When we minimize pain, we minimize the patient. When we minimize the patient, the patient dies.

So go ahead and let human suffering bother you. It proves that you still have empathy and compassion. 

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Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

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.