With every new school year comes the health warnings regarding carrying heavy backpacks. It can be damaging to every kid’s posture, but is especially worrisome for children suffering from chronic pain.
Ordinary things most children take for granted can feel unbearable to kids with chronic pain, from routine things like wearing new school uniforms, to going to class, sitting at a desk, even walking to the cafeteria. Chronic pain in children is often a consequence of diseases like juvenile arthritis, migraine, or fibromyalgia, among others.
It is estimated that one in every four kids deals with some sort of pain, according to Dr. Tonya Palermo, a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-author of “Managing Your Child’s Chronic Pain.” Usually, abdominal and musculoskeletal types of pain are among the most common.
“School is a huge challenge,” Palermo, a researcher in pediatric chronic pain at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said in a press release. She said that for kids, pain can be disruptive on every level, affecting everthing from sleep patterns to friendships.
“School’s so complicated because it’s a big mix of academic demands, emotional demands, social demands, and cognitive demands,” Palermo said.
But parents can help their kids overcome these daily challenges. Here’s how:
- Parents should be mindful of their child’s capabilities as well as the school’s demands. Some kids might need a more gradual return to school, starting with shorter periods and then increasing their stay until they can tolerate sitting, standing, and walking.
- Children with chronic pain shouldn’t have an overbooked schedule. Palermo said “it can be tempting at the beginning of the year to really want your child, who maybe has not been involved in a lot of activities, to be immersed right away,” but instead, maybe they should start with few activities, adding on throughout the year if they want to and do well.
- Kids should have a place to go in case they experience pain exacerbations at school. “This might be a health room or a library or even another classroom, where they can take a 5-to-10-minute break,” Palermo said.
- Focus on the positives. For children who are trying to function while in pain, attitude is critical, said Dr. Katherine Bentley, director of the pain program at Children’s Specialized Hospital. “Parents are encouraged to talk more about, ‘How was your day in school?’ not ‘What was your pain number at lunch?’ So you’re always focusing on the positive – what they were able to do,” she said.
- Parents should establish the best possible support network for their kids so they feel safe and taken care of right away. To Bentley, this is critical for a child’s success in school. This can mean anything from seeking pediatric therapists to physicians or counselors. Some children benefit from accommodations through a tailored education plan, as well.
- Physical activity is very helpful to children with chronic pain. Swimming is a good option for kids who need low-impact exercise.
To read a first-person report of how it felt to go back to school with chronic pain, you can read the original press release to learn the story of Jasper Neale from California, who was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), or read his mother’s detailed account of the journey.