The truth about kids and pain: new statistics will alarm you

This is a guest blog by Lesley Brydon, CEO of Painaustralia. Find out more about their work here.

Most people think of chronic pain as an inevitable consequence of aging. Unless it affects you or someone you love, few of us wonder what it would be like to live a life time with chronic pain.

The Faculty of Pain Medicine of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists reports that chronic or recurrent pain may be present in 20 to 35 percent of children with the incidence increasing during adolescence, especially in young girls. And as many as 5 percent of these children become severely disabled with a much lower quality of life than children suffering other chronic conditions.

Untreated chronic pain can ruin a child’s life. It manifests in low school attendance, poorer grades and inability to participate in social or sporting activities. For some, the eventual result is social isolation and depression, disability and the inability to achieve their potential as adults.

Young people can experience chronic pain through a range of medical conditions such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, scoliosis, cancer, migraine and chronic abdominal pain, or as a result of spinal cord injuries. But in many cases there is no apparent cause.

Now for the first time, data is being systematically collected from pain clinics in Australia through the Electronic Persistent Pain Collaboration (ePPOC), which has the support of two state governments. Fifty eight clinics including seven paediatric clinics are contributing data.

Data released this month, on the pain status of kids referred to the paediatric pain clinics is alarming.   

Of 628 patients, with an average age of 12.6 for girls and 12 for boys, 40 percent reported having severe pain and over 80 percent reported moderate or severe disability. 

More than half of these children had lived with pain for more than 12 months and 85 percent were assessed at high risk of impaired health-related quality of life.

In some cases the cause of pain was attributed to illness or injury, with pain largely present in the abdomen, back or head. However, in almost 40 percent of cases, there was no obvious cause at all.

Use of analgesic or anti-inflammatory medication was common, with an alarming 33 percent of children being prescribed opioids – 19 percent taking them daily or often and 1 percent sometimes.

At referral, teenagers had missed 12 days of school in the previous term and children 10 days, while 83 percent of adolescents with part-time jobs said that pain affected their ability to work.

Treatment of complex chronic pain in children is very challenging. It requires a specially trained multidisciplinary team in a clinical environment that facilitates the use of best-practice, non-medical treatments.

While world-leading paediatric pain services are available in five metropolitan centres in Australia, there are only 12 specialist paediatric pain physicians. So getting access to services can be difficult—especially for families living in regional and rural areas.

Effective services are just not available in primary care, due to the lack of appropriately trained GPs and allied health professionals and lack of Medicare funding.

The use of opioids to manage pain in children has enormous risks and is contra to all clinical guidelines—yet as the data shows—opioids are being prescribed all too often  in the absence of more appropriate or effective treatments.

Painaustralia’s Campaign for Pain is calling on the Federal Government to recognise pain as a national health priority and to urgently address the issue of untreated chronic pain -  especially in children.

It is obvious that ensuring all children can go on to lead productive lives has clear economic and social benefits for the whole community.

But beyond that, it is morally indefensible to allow children to suffer. 

Please help kids in pain get the care they need by signing and sharing our Campaign for Pain petition today: www.change.org/campaignforpain

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About the author

Lesley Brydon, CEO Pain Australia

Lesley Brydon

Lesley is Chief Executive Officer of Painaustralia, a national not for profit body formed in 2011 to work with governments, funders, health care professionals and consumers to facilitate implementation of the National Pain Strategy.

She played a leadership role in the development of Australia’s National Pain Strategy – a world first – which was ratified by over 150 health care and consumer organisations at the National Pain Summit at Parliament House Canberra in 2010.