You don’t have to look too far to see that chronic pain management in Australia is largely focused on treating adults and the elderly. Look a little closer and you’ll see that there’s a huge gap when it comes to children and adolescents, which begs the question: is the current system leaving kids behind?
The World Health Organisation has stated that chronic pain is a “public health concern of major significance” and one of the least understood issues facing today’s healthcare industry. However, very little research or funding currently goes towards specifically understanding paediatric chronic pain management.
If you take a look at the statistics, there are a lot of children and adolescents out there living with chronic pain. In fact, you might be shocked to realise that the prevalence rates are fairly similar to those of adults. According to SKIP (Support Kids in Pain) – a specialised pain management program for children and adolescents – chronic pain affects 1 in 5 Australian children (the same rate as in adults). And for many kids, pain can become just as disabling, causing them to miss school, stop exercising and withdraw from friends – all of which have a major impact on their overall health and wellbeing.
Economically, things don’t look great either. In Queensland (where SKIP is based) adult chronic pain received State funding of $40 million, while children received $0. Meanwhile, SKIP estimates that chronic pain costs the Australian economy $34.3 billion* annually.
One authority in the area of paediatric chronic pain is Dr. Tonya Palermo of the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Dr Palermo has undertaken extensive studies into paediatric pain and found that teaching cognitive behaviour and pain management skills to kids with chronic pain can vastly improve treatment outcomes. She has also developed an online tool to improve outcomes for kids with chronic pain (read more about it here).
So why isn’t chronic pain management a priority when it comes to children and young adults?
Paediatric pain management can be neglected for a number of reasons:
- Kids don’t like talking about it and are often frightened of having to go to the doctor
- Younger kids simply may not have the words to express what they’re experiencing
- Physicians can sometimes be so focused on finding the cause of the issue that they neglect to treat the child’s actual symptoms
- Many physicians lack an understanding of paediatric pain management.
We’ve already talked about the abysmal shortage of access to dedicated pain clinics for adults in Australia (which is doubly so for those in regional and rural areas), but specialised paediatric services are sadly even scarcer, which highlights a massive need for Australian health care professionals to better understand how to properly treat kids in chronic pain.
Which is where the team at SKIP is stepping in – by helping to raise awareness of this important gap in service delivery.
Is treating children and treating adults the same?
Actually, treatment strategies for young people are essentially the same as they are for adults, with an additional focus on parental responses and the broader family system. As with adults, the best results happen when there’s an integrated combination of biological, psychological and social measures adopted.
The main distinctions to make when working with children and young people are:
- That treatment approaches may be complicated by developmental stage, as children and adolescents are still developing physically and emotionally.
- The approach needs to accommodate a family context – because parents/carers are also usually involved in treatment and ongoing management decisions.
Further reading – take a look at these links for more information: