Looking Beyond Medication

Brought to you by Creative Healing for Youth in Pain's Parenting Blog

Dr. Samantha Levy, PhD
July 31, 2023 / 6 mins read

It is time-consuming, exhausting, frustrating, and often demoralizing to navigate the medical system. When it comes to your child, emotions run even higher. Adding a pain disorder to the mix complicates matters even more because it is often not something that can be detected on imaging or lab work.

By the time you figure out what is causing your child’s symptoms, the whole family is typically depleted and traumatized by the experience. And now you have to turn to the next step of actually finding treatment that will help your child. This, too, is a daunting process!

You pray and hope that a pill or a simple procedure–even surgery–will fix the problem. But that is rarely the case for chronic pain, and sometimes surgeries make it worse. Medications are very often helpful for pain, anxiety, or depression. However, they work best if they are used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, as in the complementary alternative medicine that we advocate for at CHYP.

Most parents who I meet–even after their child has had extensive exploratory procedures, imaging, and lab work–still hold out for the “magic pill.” If they wait too long, the symptoms will typically remain or even get worse.

There are a few pitfalls of relying solely on medication.

It keeps your child in the sick role.

In my early blogs, I wrote that the main “umbrella” goal was lifting your child out of the sick role. By identifying as sick or disabled, your child will have a harder time resuming normal functioning–which is imperative in order to recover.

If the only treatment being pursued or discussed is medication or traditional medical interventions, it sends the message to your child that he is sick. It also makes it seem that the root cause is purely medical and that the mind and body are not intertwined.

If we want to treat your child effectively, so that the symptoms
diminish and remain that way for as long as possible, we have to address more than what just a pill can offer. Chronic illness is almost always a result of many layers of causes – biological, emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal. Even broader issues, such as school placement, family interactions, church, or global strife, can affect physiological symptoms, as we saw during the height of the pandemic.

It misses vital root causes

It is clear that the mind and body are interconnected and that chronic illness and associated symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness, and POTS, have multiple causes. Most symptoms–even if not caused by emotional factors–will be exacerbated by stress, anxiety, depression, and so on. There is also a vicious cycle where emotions can increase symptoms, and then the increased symptoms cause more anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and other issues that then trigger more pain and dysautonomia (disorders of the autonomic nervous system).

If parents only see physiological reasons–targeted through
medications and procedures–as the causes of the symptoms, their children are robbed of being helped by treatments that address the psyche, spirit, chi, chakra, vagus nerve, and so on.

It undervalues learning skills to build strength and resilience

When you find treatments that include more than medications and procedures, your child will learn invaluable insights and skills that will benefit him for the rest of his life.

For example, if your child only takes pain medication and does not engage in physical therapy, she will not gain the flexibility and strength that will help the issue resolve and not come back.

And if your child learns calming skills through breathing, mindfulness, meditation, and/or hypnotherapy, he can use those skills to help with pain. These skills will also help in situations that cause anxiety, making it less likely that they will trigger a pain flare-up.

It is difficult to pursue many different kinds of treatments, and you and your kids may become disillusioned at some point. With each new recommendation, there is hope that it will help; if it does not, it’s harder to feel motivated to try something else. Sometimes it is easier to just not try again.

However, I encourage you to keep trying. It may take a while to find the right fit–then suddenly there is a click and it falls into place. It sometimes takes about six sessions to really tell whether a treatment is going to be the right fit, so perseverance is also important.

Again though, there is usually not just one modality that cures everything. Sometimes it takes a few different kinds of treatment to help put the puzzle pieces together. For example, often kids will benefit from a combination of medication, along with a treatment that requires learning a physical skill (e.g., PT, OT, Taekwondo), one that develops emotional “skills” or quiets the nervous system (e.g., psychotherapy, art therapy, hypnotherapy), and a treatment that is performed on the child (e.g., craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, vagus nerve manipulation).

While some alternative therapies may sound foreign o strange, I encourage you to explore treatments with an open mind. Children tend to be more curious, open, and creative than adults, which can help access areas of the mind and body that can really benefit from alternative treatments.

Non-medication treatments also have much lower side effects than other treatments. And when your child eventually weans herself off the medication, you want her to have the skills to calm herself, access inner resources, and call on physical strengths.

James was a 14-year-old boy with leg pain, and both epileptic and non-epileptic seizures (FND). He had tried many medical treatments, with no improvement. He finally met with Dr. Zeltzer and began taking medications for anxiety and pain. These helped somewhat but did not take away his symptoms.

Being out of school, he felt isolated and was upset that he was not on track academically. Through psychotherapy, he discovered that certain family dynamics were enabling his symptoms and needed to change. He also discovered that he had a learning disability and needed accommodations at school to help level the playing field academically and reduce stress.

He loved music and engaged in music therapy, which was calming and brought him joy. He learned meditative breathing techniques. He also participated in yoga, strengthening his legs and making his entire body stronger and more flexible. Through yoga, he also learned to trust and be prouder of his body.

All of these alternative therapies set James up for dealing with his mind and body in the future. He had occasional flare-ups, but because of all of the skills he had learned, he knew how to handle them. Before engaging in these therapies, he and his parents would never have guessed that they would help him so much. Even though the treatments took a lot more time and effort than medication alone, they helped him so much more than just medication in the long run.

Let yourself be open to any treatment modality that could help, no matter how unfamiliar you are with it. Don’t let your family and friends say it is too “out there.” It just may be the best fit for your child!