How pain perception is influenced by various psychosocial factors

Encounters with pain accompany us almost from the moment of birth until our last hours on this earth. However, our responses to pain stimuli vary significantly. This is also noticeable in children: Some, after scraping their knee, quickly get up and continue playing, while others need a comforting hug from a loved one before they feel better. Why is that?

Pain Perception Is Individual

How intensely we perceive pain depends on various psychosocial and behavioral factors. This is because pain itself does not “originate” at the wound or bruise itself but is processed in the brain. Nerve signals are transmitted from the sensory receptors at the affected area to the brain, where they are processed and then interpreted as pain.

The “volume” of the pain is influenced by factors such as experience, current emotional state, feelings or fatigue.

We start learning how to interpret pain sensations from early childhood

How children respond to pain partly depends on their upbringing. They first learn from their parents how to interpret and manage pain. Overly attentive responses to minor injuries teach a child to be overly sensitive to painful experiences. Children whose parents rush to their aid at the slightest stumble may associate falling with fear and develop corresponding pain and avoidance behaviors or even provoke incidents to get attention.

You’ve probably seen it before: a small child who has just learned to walk suddenly falls, is completely surprised and doesn’t know how to react. So it immediately looks to their mother or father and, depending on how they react and their facial expression, the child either starts screaming or simply gets up again and continues walking.

Studies suggest that children with particularly low pain tolerance are more likely to develop chronic pain. This makes sense when you consider that these little ones are essentially “trained” to give painful sensations a lot of attention and importance.

Another study by psychologist Dr. Christiane Herrmann supports this. Cold tests showed that children suffering from chronic pain reported more pain when immersing their arm in cold water compared to children without chronic pain. Interestingly, children whose mothers were present showed a stronger pain reaction than those whose mothers were not in the same room.

Risk factors for chronic pain include stressful family situations, high performance pressure, or social conflicts. According to the German Pain Center for Children, about 5% of children in Germany suffer from chronic pain that lasts for months, most commonly in the form of headaches, joint pain, or stomachaches. These children are often significantly impacted, missing school more frequently and being unable to regularly participate in recreational activities. This can be very stressful for both the children and their families. So, what can parents do to help?

Parental Calmness and Optimism Are Key

Whether dealing with acute or chronic pain in children (and also adults), it is crucial for parents or caregivers to convey calmness and optimism. Give the pain issue the attention it deserves, provide comfort, stay calm, and explain to the child what you perceive.

This is also an excellent opportunity to reassess your own pain behavior; after all, you are your child’s biggest role model, at least for the first ten years…