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Children’s pain is real

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Every parent has done it. A child gets her immunizations or breaks his arm. They scream in agony and a well-meaning mother or father responds with a hug, wipes the tears from their face and says, "There now. It's OK. It's not that bad."

Sometimes it is that bad and adults are not attuned to it. A new joint statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Pain Society affirms that children's pain is widely misunderstood, not just by parents but some health care providers. The statement says children feel pain as much as adults and doctors need to do more to relieve their pain from injuries, illnesses and medical procedures.

While the health care industry has become more child friendly on many levels, assessing pain in children can be problematic. Children sometimes have difficulty expressing the various degrees of pain they may experience. Some health care providers may not be attuned to anticipating or assessing pain in children so that they can take pre-emptive steps to alleviate pain during procedures or treat acute pain resulting from injury or disease.

This is vital, according to authors of the statement, because children, unlike adults, lack the ability to calm themselves when they feel pain, even during minor medical procedures such as getting a shot. In the case of more traumatic injury or illness, improperly treated pain can set back healing and recovery.

Imagine the child who requires long-term treatment. Taking steps such as reassuring the child and using a cream to numb skin before regular blood draws would go a long way to reducing the child's pain and anxiety.

One troubling aspect of the statement was the suggestion that some health care providers believe pain builds character. It's a preposterous notion that points to a greater need for training in this area of medicine and more education about the side effects of pain medication.

Part of the problem is the limited availability of pain relievers for use among children because the drugs lack Food and Drug Administration approval for pediatric use. Hopefully the physician groups' statement will stir more work in this area.

Fortunately, a wide variety of medical advances have improved children's health care. Instead of stitches many physicians use a form of glue to patch up children's injuries. Pain medicine can be delivered through lollipops. If injections are required, the pain is reduced through the use of thinner needles. Hospitals and out-patient clinics have been designed to be more inviting and kid friendly.

Just as technology, treatment, medical delivery systems and drugs themselves must continue to evolve to improve pain prevention and treatment among children, so do attitudes regarding children's pain. Their pain is real and deserves careful attention.