Pediatric Pain Management: How PTs Can Help Adolescents Overcome Chronic Pain

Adolescents have a hard enough time navigating life. But navigating those formative years with a painful chronic condition—such as juvenile arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or severe injuries—makes life that much harder.

Struggling with chronic pain when you’re a teenager isn’t just painful. It can lead to problems like obesity, and compound issues of insecurity or poor social adjustment.

There’s no cure for adolescence, but physical therapy can make it bearable for young people with chronic pain conditions.

AlterG client Karen Owens, PT, DPT, PCS, and co-owner at Sky Pediatric Therapy in Irvine,

CA, has more than 20 years experience working with youth who have chronic pain conditions.

Here, she offers some pediatric pain management tips for treating this unique age group.

Pain Is Not Required
Even under normal circumstances, it can sometimes be hard to coax young people to exercise.

But those with chronic illnesses have extra hurdles.

“Typically, when teens with chronic conditions involving joint pain exercise, the pain can increase in severity, or due to asymmetrical use of their bodies, other areas will begin to

experience pain,” says Karen.

“Moving asymmetrically is not efficient, can lead to frustration, and poor tolerance to exercise.

Poor tolerance to exercise can lead to poor weight management, a sedentary lifestyle, and

possibly obesity,” explains Karen.

Though running and jumping normally means your joints take a pounding, positive pressure body weight-supported exercise using equipment like the Anti-Gravity Treadmill™ can reduce stress on the joints.

“The ability to exercise aerobically on the partial-weight bearing treadmill while not increasing pain on affected joints can lead to better participation and better outcomes, like improved cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal strength gains,” adds Karen.

Karen says another added benefit is that the AlterG can substitute for other pieces of equipment. Jumping inside the partial-weight bearing treadmill can take the place of a trampoline, which can be hard on patients with joint inflammation.

“You can use a stationary bike for aerobic exercise as well, but you will limit the potential to

use the full range of motion of the joints in the legs,” says Karen.

“With the AlterG, gradual increases in the amount of weight applied to the body can be

achieved during an activity necessary for the person to function in their daily life, like walking,” Karen adds. “This can affect the patient’s confidence level outside the clinic.”

Empower Young Patients
As a physical therapist, Karen says she encourages her patients to take control of their own bodies and health.

“It’s important to get them into the clinic and into activities that promote self-care, their life goals, and current interests,” Karen emphasizes. “A home exercise program filled with an endless list of exercises are rarely followed for too long by teens, in my experience.”

“Exercising by using the Anti-Gravity Treadmill is a novel experience, which involves high-tech, and instant feedback via a three-view camera system and monitor,” Karen explains. “Teens like tech and instant visual feedback. Then I don’t have to nag too much.”

The AlterG can also synch with a heart rate monitor and display this information on its console, so the kids can track their own progress.

“Once they get involved in their own health care, a home program consisting of one or two exercises to focus on is suggested,” recommends Karen.

Joining Forces
Physical therapists can’t tackle every patient’s problem on their own.

Alongside physical therapy, recommending help from other healthcare professionals may benefit young patients with chronic pain, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases.

These may include:

  • Occupational therapist: For loss of function, an occupational therapist can also be helpful in teaching teens to protect joints, minimize pain, and exercise safely. This is complementary to physical therapy and cuts your job in half, so you can focus on the exercise.
  • Counselor: Emotional help is especially important for teens who are in tough transition years. They won’t be able to commit to physical therapy if they’re depressed, anxious, or otherwise psychologically compromised.
  • School contact: This is where your patients spend most of their day. If possible, have a point person at school to help organize a plan for flare-ups, handle sports requirements, and adjust scheduling to fit in physical therapy.

Adolescent years are rough. Physical therapy with a chronic pain condition can make them rougher. Learn about other ways the AlterG can enhance physical therapy for young patients.