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The Power of Imagination: Helping Kids with Sickle Cell Disease to Cope with Pain

April 2, 2014

By Sylvia Foley, AJN senior editor

Many people with sickle cell disease suffer from both acute and chronic pain, which can be severe. Although the exact mechanism isn’t known, the pain is believed to result when sickled erythrocytes occlude the vascular beds, causing tissue ischemia. Such pain, which often begins in early childhood, arises unpredictably. Although some pain crises may require ED visits, hos­pitalization, opioid treatment, or a combination of these, most are managed at home. Yet little is known about at-home pain management in people with sickle cell disease, especially children.

Table 2. Changes in Self-Efficacy, Imaging Ability, and Pain Perception in School-Age Children After Guided Imagery Training

Table 2. Changes in Self-Efficacy, Imaging Ability, and Pain Perception in School-Age Children After Guided Imagery Training

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown promise in helping patients with other chronic illnesses to cope with pain. Cassandra Elaine Dobson and Mary Woods Byrne decided to test guided imagery, a form of CBT, among children enrolled at one sickle cell treatment clinic in New York City. They report on their findings in this month’s original research CE, “Using Guided Imagery to Manage Pain in Young Children with Sickle Cell Disease.” The abstract below offers a quick overview; if you click the image above, you’ll see an enlarged view of one table showing key results.

Objectives: The purposes of this study were to test the effects of guided imagery training on school-age children who had been diagnosed with sickle cell disease, and to describe changes in pain perception, analgesic use, self-efficacy, and imaging ability from the month before to the month after training.
Methods: A quasi-experimental interrupted time-series design was used with a purposive sample of 20 children ages six to 11 years enrolled from one sickle cell disease clinic, where they had been treated for at least one year. Children completed pain diaries daily for two months, and investigators measured baseline and end-of-treatment imaging ability and self-efficacy.
Results: After training in the use of guided imagery, participants reported significant increases in self-efficacy and reductions in pain intensity, and use of analgesics decreased as well.
Conclusions: Guided imagery is an effective technique for managing and limiting sickle cell disease–related pain in a pediatric population.

The technique was easily taught in training sessions lasting 15 to 45 minutes, with no child needing more than one session. The authors concluded that “the use of guided imagery in this population assumes that a child’s imagination has the potential to affect health, and our findings support that assumption.” Because this was a small study, they urged further large-scale clinical trials.

To learn more, read the article, which is free online. As always—and especially if you have experience caring for children with sickle cell disease—we welcome your comments.

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