Evaluating Pain in a Child

Overview

Pain can be difficult for a child to describe. Also, a child isn't always able to recognize a sensation as pain. An older child may be able to describe tingling, cramping, or sharp sensations and may be able to tell where and when the sensation occurs. When a young child is in pain, the signs can be hard to recognize.

Signs that may mean your child is in pain include:

  • Changes in usual behavior. Your child may eat less or become fussy or restless.
  • Crying, grunting, or breath-holding.
  • Crying that can't be comforted.
  • Facial expressions, such as a furrowed brow, a wrinkled forehead, closed eyes, or an angry appearance.
  • Sleep changes, such as waking often or sleeping more or less than usual. Even children in severe pain may take short naps because they are tired.
  • Body movements, such as making fists, guarding a part of the body (especially while walking), kicking, clinging, or not moving.

Some children may deny that they are in pain because they are afraid of medical procedures. For example, admitting that they are in pain might mean blood tests, which may be painful themselves. Some children may try to ignore their pain rather than take medicines, which often have discomforting side effects.

Pain isn't a visible symptom, so you and your child's treatment team will need to rely on your child as the primary source of information on the status of his or her pain. Only your child knows if pain is present. And experts say that children rarely pretend to have pain.

Many children who have chronic conditions experience pain and discomfort from the disease. The amount and type of pain is related to the type and severity of the disease, the child's pain threshold, and emotional and psychological factors. Pain limits a child's ability to function. With care and good communication with your child's doctor, it is possible to provide some, if not total, relief.

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