Special Interest Group on Pain in Childhood
Pediatric Pain Letter

:: Home ::
Contact ::
Current issue ::
Past issues ::
For authors ::
Links ::
Search ::

Carl L. von Baeyer, PhD, University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Canada

Copyright © 2008,
Special Interest Group on
Pain in Childhood,
International Association
for the Study of Pain®,

ISSN 1715-3956

Information appearing in Pediatric Pain Letter is not reviewed by, and is not necessarily endorsed by, the Special Interest Group on Pain in Childhood, nor by IASP ®.

Vol. 10 No. 3

December 2008


Treatment-related expectations in pediatric chronic pain

Anna C. Long and Jessica W. Guite

printable version (PDF)

Positive expectations for treatment and recovery are associated with better health outcomes in adults with a range of health problems (Mondloch et al., 2001). However, less is known about treatment expectations in pediatric populations. Treatment-related expectations are cognitive beliefs and appraisals about the likelihood that certain events will occur during the course of treatment or as a result of treatment (Kirsch, 1990). Assessment of treatment expectations is a complex undertaking as both child and parent expectations may play a role in predicting outcomes. Despite this challenge, treatment expectations are particularly important to consider in pediatric chronic pain populations because patients frequently consult multiple providers to find pain relief (Bennett et al., 2000) and experience many encounters as unsatisfactory (Carter, 2002). These repeated, unsatisfactory experiences can reinforce expectations that future providers or treatments will not be helpful. In this commentary, we review the literature on treatment expectations for chronic pain outcomes in adults and the limited research focusing on children. We also provide future directions for measure development and research.

Variables associated with treatment-related expectations in adult populations

Health-related beliefs and treatment expectations are associated with the degree to which patients seek help, adhere to treatment recommendations, and/or become disabled. Treatment expectations are conceptually related to cognitive appraisals (e.g., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), expectancy constructs including locus of control and learned helplessness (e.g., Norman & Bennett, 1995), and nonspecific and placebo effects (e.g., Turner et al., 1994). In adults, expectations influence a range of health outcomes, including pain and analgesic use following surgeries and injuries (Mondloch et al., 2001). In adults with chronic back pain, high positive expectations for either massage or acupuncture predicted significant reductions in disability scores after treatment; such that the odds of improvement were 5 times higher in patients with high expectations for the treatment they received (Kalauokalani et al., 2001). However, among adults receiving procedural treatments (e.g., nerve blocks, infusions), physician expectations of pain relief, but not patient expectations, predicted pre-post procedure changes in pain ratings (Galer et al., 1997). Thus, there are mixed findings in adult populations about whether patient expectations directly affect outcomes.

Measurement of treatment-related expectations in pediatric and adult populations

In a review of randomized trials of psychological treatments for pediatric pain, Eccleston et al. (2002) noted that 8 of 18 studies (44%) included measures of treatment credibility or expectations. However, few of these studies specifically report how expectations predicted outcomes, despite calls to assess treatment-related expectations in psychological trials for pain as potential predictors or mediators of effects (Turner et al., 1994; Yates et al., 2005). In the pediatric literature, measures to assess expectations tend to be simple and have been used to control for bias rather than as primary predictors of treatment outcomes. For example, measures have included Likert scale items to assess child and parent confidence and credibility ratings of a biofeedback treatment (Scharff et al., 2002) or a single VAS rating (anchored with "Don't think it will help at all" and "Think it will help a lot") to assess children’s expectations for how much a psychological treatment would help (Hicks et al., 2006). Tsao and colleagues (2005) conducted a comprehensive assessment of patient and parent expectations regarding various complementary and alternative medicine (CAM; e.g., hypnosis, acupuncture) and conventional treatments (e.g., medications, surgery) using closed-ended, 5-item response scales ranging from 1 = "Not at all helpful" to 5 = "Completely helpful", however this study did not examine the relationship between expectations and outcomes. The one study reporting on the relationship between expectations and outcome found no relationships between either parent or child expectations and the outcome of a psychological treatment for recurrent pain (Hicks et al., 2006).

Studies in adults have utilized similar methods to assess treatment-related expectations (Mondloch et al., 2001), but some researchers have developed more comprehensive measures. Measures typically assess general expectations for prognosis, but some broaden the scope of assessment by averaging expectations across a number of treatments (e.g., Kalauokalani et al., 2001). Other investigators have examined expectations related to specific outcomes, such as whether patients expected reductions in pain severity, frequency, more rapid relief, improved quality of life, or a cure for the pain condition (Patrick et al., 2003; Kelman, 2006). While more complex, multidimensional measures seem promising, they have not been used in pediatric populations and little is known about their psychometric properties.

Need for development of pediatric measures of treatment expectations

The development of pediatric measures of treatment expectations is important from both a research and clinical standpoint. The assessment of treatment expectations is an important component of high-quality clinical trials (Yates et al., 2005), therefore the development of reliable and valid measures will improve the quality of future trials. In clinical settings, treatment expectations are frequently assessed unsystematically via intake questionnaires and interviews. Incorporating standardized measures into clinical contexts can help clarify patient beliefs and expectations that are often difficult for clinicians to determine, as patients do not always share expectations with providers (Bell et al., 2001). Treatment recommendations frequently entail multiple components and providers. Thus, measures need to be developed that account for expectations for individual components of a multimodal pain treatment program, and for the program as a whole. For example, outpatient psychology services may be perceived as more or less helpful relative to physical therapy. Moreover, it is advisable to assess both parent and child perspectives related to treatment expectations, as parents communicate their own expectations to their children.

Well-developed measures in the child mental health literature might be adapted to address this need, including measures of parental expectations for treatment (Nock & Kazdin, 2001) and measures assessing perceived barriers to treatment efficacy and adherence (Colonna-Pydyn et al., 2007). These measures include simple items with closed-ended responses such as: "I expect that because of this treatment my child" (1 = "will not improve" to 5 = "will improve quickly"), and items assessing potential reasons why expectations are positive or negative, such as: "(This treatment) did not focus on my life and problems" (1 = "never a problem" to 5 = "very often a problem"). In addition, methodology that indirectly taps into patient and parent perspectives by eliciting treatment-related expectations may assist with additional measure development. This approach may help to obtain a more accurate assessment of beliefs and expectations that families have prior to an initial pain evaluation by reducing potential social desirability bias that can influence responses (Logan et al., 2008). Standardized vignettes have been used in which children respond to scenarios about a peer with problems similar to the patient (Guite et al., 2008) 1. Other constructs that may inform the development of pediatric measures of treatment expectations include pain beliefs such as appraisals about a child's ability to accept or reduce their own pain (Walker et al., 2005). A patient’s “readiness to change” or adopt a self-management approach to coping, which is associated with improvement in multidisciplinary pain treatment and pain coping in adults (Kerns & Rosenberg, 2000; Jensen et al., 2004), may also be a useful construct. Readiness to change has been studied related to health behaviors and adherence in other pediatric populations, but would also be applicable to pediatric chronic pain, particularly when treatment recommendations require substantial self-management and behavior change (Sindelar et al., 2004). Taken together, this existing work can inform the development of measures that not only accurately capture how helpful children and parents think a treatment will be, but also elicit information about how realistic expectations are, why expectations are positive or negative, and what barriers to positive expectations might exist.

Other future directions for research

Beyond measure development, there are two broad areas that need further study. First, how important are child and parent expectations in predicting outcomes in this population? This could be examined both in pain clinics and in the context of clinical trials. In the pain clinic setting, expectations might be examined as predictors of treatment outcome, use of services, and satisfaction. In clinical trials, expectations might be examined as covariates or potential mediators of treatment effects. Positive expectations may inflate the observed effects of treatments, and novel treatments, which are often tested in clinical trials, have been shown to have higher nonspecific effects (Turner et al., 1994). These will be important hypotheses to examine in future research.

Second, if expectations prove to be important predictors of treatment outcomes, how can we best improve or enhance patient expectations? The process of referral, assessment, and feedback to families likely varies significantly across pain clinics and providers, but much of the communication that occurs throughout this process may impact expectations. Collaborative and clear communication can lead to shared decision-making and goal-setting, in which both patient and provider knowledge and expectations are taken into account. In adults, there is evidence that when physicians provide clear explanations about symptoms and optimistic predictions, this raises patient expectations and leads to better health outcomes for minor ailments (Fassaert et al., 2008). Adult studies have also shown that actively engaging patients in shared decision-making about treatment options increases the likelihood that treatments they receive are aligned with their most positive expectations (Frantsve & Kerns, 2007). Similar physician communication patterns are likely to be important in pediatric populations. Examining the communication of expert clinicians might provide some clues about things providers can do to help patients have more positive and realistic expectations. Clinicians who are better able to adjust and communicate necessary treatment recommendations based on verbal and nonverbal cues provided by children and their parents may be more likely to facilitate successful treatment outcomes (Lewis et al., 1991). Research on specific psychological techniques designed to increase collaborative problem-solving, improve health behaviors, and increase readiness to change, including motivational interviewing, may elucidate how providers can help create optimal treatment expectation conditions so that treatments can most effectively relieve pain and improve functioning (Sindelar et al., 2004). There is evidence that an educational video can impact parental knowledge and attitudes about pain management in acute pain settings, and this type of standardized educational approach might be helpful in chronic pain settings (Greenberg et al., 1999). Individual clinics have developed educational materials for patients, but these types of resources have not typically been researched and it is largely unknown whether they impact treatment expectations.

While the pediatric pain field has made some initial progress in assessment of treatment-related expectations, more work is needed to standardize and validate assessment. Furthermore, additional research is needed to determine how providers can best impact expectations, and to examine the role that both patient and parent expectations play in treatment outcomes. Ultimately, efforts to improve measurement of pediatric pain-related treatment expectations will provide a foundation from which to further understand the role that treatment-related expectations play in clinical outcomes.


Anna C. Long, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Anesthesiology & Peri-Operative Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon, USA
email: longann[at]ohsu.edu

Jessica W. Guite, PhD
Assistant Professor, Anesthesiology and Critical Care, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine & Psychologist, Pain Management Service, Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care Medicine, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA



1 This measure is available from JW Guite (guite[at]email.chop.edu).


Bell RA, Kravitz RL, Thom D, Krupat E, Azari R. Unsaid but not forgotten: patients' unvoiced desires in office visits. Arch Intern Med 2001;161:1977-1984. PubMed Abstract

Bennett SM, Huntsman E, Lilley CM. Parent perceptions of the impact of chronic pain in children and adolescents. Child Health Care 2000;29:147-159.

Carter B. Chronic pain in childhood and the medical encounter: professional ventriloquism and hidden voices. Qual Health Res 2002;12:28-41. PubMed Abstract

Colonna-Pydyn C, Gjesfjeld CD, Greeno CG. The factor structure of the Barriers to Treatment Participation Scale (BTPS): implications for future barriers scale development. Adm Policy Ment Health 2007;34:563-569. PubMed Abstract

Eccleston C, Morley S, Williams A, Yorke L, Mastroyannopoulou K. Systematic review of randomised controlled trials of psychological therapy for chronic pain in children and adolescents, with a subset meta-analysis of pain relief. Pain 2002;99:157-165. PubMed Abstract

Fassaert T, van Dulmen S, Schellevis F, van der Jagt L, Bensing J. Raising positive expectations helps patients with minor ailments: a cross-sectional study. BMC Fam Pract 2008;9:38. PubMed Abstract

Frantsve LM, Kerns RD. Patient-provider interactions in the management of chronic pain: current findings within the context of shared medical decision making. Pain Med 2007;8:25-35. PubMed Abstract

Galer BS, Schwartz L, Turner JA. Do patient and physician expectations predict response to pain-relieving procedures? Clin J Pain 1997;13:348-351. PubMed Abstract

Greenberg RS, Billett C, Zahurak M, Yaster M. Videotape increases parental knowledge about pediatric pain management. Anesth Analg 1999;89:899-903. PubMed Abstract

Guite JW, Sherker JL, Hernandez SV, Sherry DD, Rose JB. Adolescent and parent pain beliefs and treatment expectations in the context of a multidisciplinary pain clinic consultation: preliminary findings. Poster presented at the 2008 National Conference in Child Health Psychology, Miami Beach, Florida.

Hicks CL, von Baeyer CL, McGrath PJ. Online psychological treatment for pediatric recurrent pain: a randomized evaluation. J Pediatr Psychol 2006;31:724-736. PubMed Abstract

Jensen MP, Nielson WR, Turner JA, Romano JM, Hill ML. Changes in readiness to self-manage pain are associated with improvement in multidisciplinary pain treatment and pain coping. Pain 2004;111:84-95. PubMed Abstract

Kalauokalani D, Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Koepsell TD, Deyo RA. Lessons from a trial of acupuncture and massage for low back pain: patient expectations and treatment effects. Spine 2001;26:1418-1424. PubMed Abstract

Kelman L. The broad treatment expectations of migraine patients. J Headache Pain 2006;7:403-406. PubMed Abstract

Kerns RD, Rosenberg R. Predicting responses to self-management treatments for chronic pain: application of the pain stages of change model. Pain 2000;84:49-55. PubMed Abstract

Kirsch I. Changing expectations: a key to effective psychotherapy. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1990.

Lazarus RS, Folkman S. Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer, 1984.

Lewis CC, Pantell RH, Sharp L. Increasing patient knowledge, satisfaction, and involvement: randomized trial of a communication intervention. Pediatrics 1991;88:351-358. PubMed Abstract

Logan DE, Claar RL, Scharff L. Social desirability response bias and self-report of psychological distress in pediatric chronic pain patients. Pain 2008;136:366-372. PubMed Abstract

Mondloch MV, Cole DC, Frank JW. Does how you do depend on how you think you'll do? A systematic review of the evidence for a relation between patients' recovery expectations and health outcomes. CMAJ 2001;165:174-179. PubMed Abstract

Nock MK, Kazdin AE. Parent expectations for child therapy: assessment and relation to participation in treatment. J Child Fam Stud 2001;10:155-180.

Norman P, Bennett, P. Health locus of control. In: Conner M, Norman P, editors. Predicting health behaviour. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1995. pp. 62-94.

Patrick DL, Martin ML, Bushnell DM, Pesa J. Measuring satisfaction with migraine treatment: expectations, importance, outcomes, and global ratings. Clin Ther 2003;25:2920-2935. PubMed Abstract

Scharff L, Marcus DA, Masek BJ. A controlled study of minimal-contact thermal biofeedback treatment in children with migraine. J Pediatr Psychol 2002;27:109-119. PubMed Abstract

Sindelar HA, Abrantes AM, Hart C, Lewander W, Spirito A. Motivational interviewing in pediatric practice. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care 2004;34:322-339.

Tsao JC, Meldrum M, Bursch B, Jacob MC, Kim SC, Zeltzer LK. Treatment expectations for CAM interventions in pediatric chronic pain patients and their parents. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2005;2:521-527. PubMed Abstract

Turner JA, Deyo RA, Loeser JD, Von Korff M, Fordyce WE. The importance of placebo effects in pain treatment and research. JAMA 1994;271:1609-1614. PubMed Abstract

Walker LS, Smith CA, Garber J, Claar RL. Testing a model of pain appraisal and coping in children with chronic abdominal pain. Health Psychol 2005;24:364-374. PubMed Abstract

Yates SL, Morley S, Eccleston C, de C. Williams AC. A scale for rating the quality of psychological trials for pain. Pain 2005;117:314-325. PubMed Abstract