If your teenager tells you that he or she has a stomach ache it might be more than just an excuse to get out of doing something you’ve asked them to do. A new study looks at chronic pain in teenagers and finds that hospital admissions for these youngsters has risen nine-fold between the years 2004 and 2010.
Researchers reported that 23% of the cases analyzed showed that the most common chronic pain teenagers experience is in the abdomen.
Other conditions included reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (when an injury – such as an ankle sprain - does not heal properly and sends constant pain signals to the brain), chronic pain syndrome (pain lasting more than 3 months), headaches, migraines, limb pain and back pain.
"We are seeing a lot more young patients with chronic pain syndrome" said study author Dr. Thomas A. Coffelt, assistant professor of clinical medicine and pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. "It is quite alarming to us."
For the study, researchers gathered information on 3,752 children admitted to 43 pediatric hospitals throughout the United States.
Teenage girls led the demographics with the average age being fourteen. The average hospital stay was 7.32 days.
The majority of hospitalized kids received additional diagnoses. The average was 10 diagnoses per child. Children were also diagnosed with conditions such as abdominal pain, mood disorders, constipation and nausea. Altogether, 65 percent of patients received a gastrointestinal diagnosis, and 44 percent received a psychiatric diagnosis.
The results also showed that even after being hospitalized, many youngsters continued to have pain. Coffelt said that 12.5 percent of the children were back in the hospital within a year — 9.9 percent were readmitted at least once, and 2.6 percent more than once.
So what’s causing all this chronic pain? Experts aren’t really sure. Coffelt says some secondary conditions could be playing a role. Conditions such as depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. A small percent of the young pain sufferers (2.1%) report physical, emotional and sexual abuse or assault.
"We can't identify the underlying [cause] of pain, which is why we struggle with it," Coffelt said. "We need to find a better way to treat these patients."
Gary A. Walco, director of pain medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital, who was not involved in the study, says chronic pain may not be as well understood by the medical community as it should be and that the condition is quite common in many children.
"The chronic pain field now recognizes that a good deal of chronic pain has to do with a change in how the brain and spinal cord are processing the stimuli coming into the body," Walco said. "This study shines a light on how poorly understood and mismanaged recurrent and chronic pain syndromes are."
The multiple diagnostic procedures and readmissions cited in the study underscore the need to do better when it comes to dealing with pain in youngsters, Walco said. Instead of treating chronic pain as an acute problem, physicians need to focus on rehabilitation, he explained.
And "rather than continuing to see pain as a symptom of another illness, parents need to recognize pain is the illness, and seek out a pain expert for treatment," Walco said.
If your child suffers from chronic pain, you can check with your local hospitals to see if there is access to a pediatric pain management specialist.
Living with chronic pain can cause kids to miss out on a lot of the joys of childhood. These children tend to drop out of sports programs and other extracurricular activities and sleep poorly. It also affects the rest of the family oftentimes adding extra tension and stress to the household.
Pain is complex and individualized. Pediatric pain is even more complex and difficult to manage, but it should not be ignored.
The study appeared in the July edition of the journal Pediatrics.