For years, doctors have been trying to make life more comfortable for the 1.5 billion people around the world who deal with chronic aches and pains. One new study, however, is taking a different approach by helping children who suffer from chronic pain in particular.
“Effective treatment of pain can be particularly difficult because it’s subjective,” said Angela Johnson, a practitioner of Chinese medicine of Rush’s Cancer Integrative Medicine Program. “But with children, it is increasingly difficult because a child may not be able to communicate effectively depending on the age and accurate recognition of pain.”
Johnson was one of the doctors running the study, which discovered that acupuncture may hold the answer for childhood pain. The results were published in Alternative and Complementary Therapies just this month.
“While acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain in adults, there is very little data on whether it’s effective in children.” Johnson says. “This study looked at the effect of acupuncture in children directly, rather than examining data collected from adults. This focus is especially important, since children experience pain in different ways than adults.”
This study in particular focused on 55 children and young adults, all between seven and 20 years of age. Each participant received an individualized acupuncture treatment based on their chronic pain, with the treatment lasting about 30 minutes.
Every patient who participated reported lower levels of pain after the treatment, across eight sessions. They also added that they felt their pain being reduced within each session.
The acupuncture treatments also led to reductions in their health, emotional, social, and educational problems. These findings were double-checked with the parents and noted on parent observations.
“Acupuncture provides an amazing alternative to chronic pain medication,” says Paul Kent, co-principal investigator of the study and pediatric oncologist at Rush. “This is especially true for patients who may have to cope with pain for most of their life, including those who have sickle cell anemia and aftereffects of cancer. In addition it helps with anxiety and depression.”
The study did accomplish what the doctors set out to do — this is a major contribution to the literature on pediatric chronic pain. The doctors hope this is the first of many studies on this topic.
Research on the subjects notes that in addition to the chronic pain by itself, it can cause traumatic effects on a child’s overall quality of life. Experts say it may have physical, psychological and social repercussions, and that doesn’t even touch on the helplessness the child’s caregivers may feel, either.
The problem has always been that treating pediatric chronic pain is more complex than treating it in adults, because the body is still growing and developing. There is a fear that the wrong treatments could have long-term effects, worse than the child started with, and most therapeutic treatments are widely untested.
“The results of this study suggest that acupuncture can have a profound positive impact on the health and well-being of children who experience the disabling effects of chronic pain,” Johnson says. She hopes to expand her research to larger groups of children in order to understand more about how acupuncture can help relieve their chronic pain.