Skip main navigation

Contextualising Pain


When assessing a child with abdominal pain, as with any medical problem in children, you need to take a detailed history and then look at the physical signs; putting these together will help you get the diagnosis (or at least be able to put this child into a big sick or little sick category). In the neonate and very young infant, serious pain may present with a child who either cannot be settled by anyone (but remember there is a bit of a vicious cycle here as sometimes anxiety in parents can result in infants not settling) or who is very pale and quiet.

As the child becomes more verbal it is easier to balance what is being described and what you are seeing. A toddler or younger child with severe pain associated with a possible surgical cause, may be quiet and scared looking or alternatively agitated. What they will not be is distractible. However benign causes of pain such as mesenteric adenitis may present you with a child who, with good interaction and use of distraction, will chat to you and even smile. In the older child you would expect severe pain to have a physiological effect such as tachycardia, although this is not invariable.

It can be difficult to determine the extent of the pain with a very distressed young person but if the reported pain appears out of keeping with physical appearance of the child (a smiling child who tells you that their, ‘Belly’s killing them’) you are likely to be dealing with a much less serious condition.

This article is from the free online

Emergency and Urgent Care for Children: a Survival Guide

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now