Talk Therapy for Kids’ Pain: Better than Pills?

Tuesday, Mar. 03, 2009
By John Cloud

Some children, like some adults, have chronic, unexplainable pain. They have backaches every day or their legs and feet hurt every day or their necks throb constantly — and no one is sure why. Doctors call this pain idiopathic, a medical term for “we have no clue.” Idiopathic pain arises spontaneously and without a known cause.

How best to treat idiopathic pain is one of medicine’s great mysteries. You can anesthetize patients with painkillers, but that’s not a great long-term solution, since patients become habituated (and in some cases addicted) to pain meds. In children, the situation is even more dire, since they may face decades of swallowing drugs. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)

That’s why a study just published in the journal Pain is so encouraging. According to the study, clinicians who used a particular form of behavior therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with a group of 16 chronic-pain patients ages 10 to 18 saw remarkable results: after just 10 weeks of ACT sessions, during which patients were taught strategies for accepting chronic pain so they could pursue important goals, those kids suffered less intensely and functioned significantly better day to day than did a control group of 16 chronic-pain kids who had been treated the way kids with persistent aches are normally treated — with drugs and standard talk therapy. Both groups improved, but the children in the ACT group, who got no drugs, improved more than those who took pills. More…