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Make the pain go away


Pediatric pain researchers in Halifax are working on ways for kids, parents and healthcare providers to cope with pain

By Suzanne Rent

No parent wants to see a child in pain. But parents don’t often know the best strategies to help their child deal with pain, whether it’s from a chronic condition or receiving vaccinations. But the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research at the IWK Health Centre and Dalhousie University, a world leader in the study of pediatric pain research, is working to better understand pain in children and how parents and healthcare providers can better manage it. Dr. Christine Chambers, a clinical psychologist Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychology & Neuroscience at Dalhousie University and mother to four young children, is one of several leading researchers at the Centre for Pediatric Pain Research. Our Children recently spoke to Dr. Chambers about her work, how our understanding of pain in children has changed and what parents can do to help their children cope with pain.

How has medicine's understanding of pain in children changed over the years? 

Medicine’s understanding of pain in children has changed tremendously over the last 30 years. It’s hard to believe that as late as the 1970s and ‘80s it was widely believed that babies, especially babies born prematurely, didn’t feel pain. It was felt that the nervous systems of these babies were too immature to feel pain. And as a result they often underwent major medical procedures and surgeries without proper pain management or anaesthesia. Today, it is widely appreciated that children do feel pain and that it is important to manage. But health professionals and even the public unfortunately still don’t always take pain management seriously. There is still much we could be doing to prevent and treat pain in children.

Do children experience pain differently than adults?

Children experience pain similarly to adults. There is some evidence that children experience more pain than adults do from similar painful procedures and events.

What are the developmental and physical effects of chronic pain or fear of pain (as in getting needles) in children?

Research has shown that poorly managed painful experiences early in life can cause children to become sensitized to pain, which means they will be likely to experience more pain during procedures later in life. Painful experiences early in life have also been linked to later learning, behaviour and attention problems. A recent imaging study (where photos were taken of children’s brains) showed that early painful experiences change the way brains develop. Poorly managed painful procedures can also lead people to develop needle fears. We know that one in 10 children and adults have a severe needle phobia that can interfere with their medical care by causing them to delay or avoid medical tests and treatments. One in five children experience chronic pains like headaches and stomach aches, and we know that two-thirds of children with chronic pain will go on to experience chronic pain as an adult. So, there are many negative short and long-term effects of pain. Fortunately, if proper pain prevention and management strategies are used, many of these negative effects can be avoided.  

From your research, what have you learned that parents can do to help their children cope with pain?

There are many things parent can do to help their children with pain. Parents can help their children deal with pain from procedures by properly preparing them and using simple coping strategies like distraction, for example, playing games on an iPhone.

Our research has shown that the things parents say and do when their children have pain can have a big impact on their children’s pain. For example, when parents reassure their children when they have pain (e.g., by saying things like “You’ll be OK” or “It will be over soon”) this makes kids feel worse and increases their pain. This might come as a surprise, because when parents reassure they are trying to make their children feel better. But our research has shown that parental reassurance during pain seems to serve as a signal to children that there is something to feel nervous or anxious about, and this anxiety increases pain.

Generally speaking, parents are the best pain-management advocates for their children. It’s important that parents ask health professionals about pain-management options when their children are having medical procedures and surgeries. There is often more that can be done. Parents can also educate themselves about pain-management options for their children. Last year we created a fun, two-minute YouTube video for parents with strategies parents can use to help reduce pain from needles and shots ( Our Centre for Pediatric Pain Research website also had great resources and information about pain for parents.

And if children experience chronic pains like headaches or stomach aches on a frequent basis, there are pain management experts who can help.

I talk more about what parents can do to help their children with pain in a recent TEDx talk I gave:

What are the ways in which children themselves cope? Do you find they develop strategies of their own?

All children bring their own unique coping styles to dealing with pain. Some kids naturally know how to distract themselves, or use simple relaxation strategies like deep breathing. Other children need more support or adult instruction to help identify the coping strategies that can work well for them.

How can children articulate to parents and healthcare givers the level of pain they are feeling during a procedure or from a condition? Do you find a child's inability to articulate affects a health-care provider's understanding of how much pain a child may be experiencing?

Because of the way that pain works, it’s a very personal and subjective experience. It can be challenging for parents to know how much pain their children have. Parents can ask their children to rate their pain on a scale from zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 is the worst pain possible. There is also something called the Faces Pain Scale-Revised that parents can download free of charge and teach their children how to easily use to communicate how much pain they have. You can find that at

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

With our research, we hope to continue to improve our understanding of pain in children, and come up with better ways to assess and manage children’s pain. I have a special interest in the role of parents in children’s pain, and with our research I hope to continue to raise awareness about the problem of pain in children and empower parents to expect and demand the best pain care possible for their children.







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