Preliminary research in youth with chronic pain suggests differences in attention and working memory, which has been similarly demonstrated in adults with chronic pain. There has been little research on other aspects of executive functioning (EF) in this population despite its critical role in problem solving, school functioning, and coping. This study aimed to examine differences in several aspects of EF between youth with chronic pain and a nonchronic pain comparison group using performance-based neuropsychological tests and a behavior rating scale.
Materials and Methods:
Participants completed ratings of pain; physical, emotional, social, and school functioning; sleep quality; medication; and a general intelligence screener. Standardized neuropsychological tests were used to examine EF with a focus on working memory, divided and alternating attention, inhibition, flexibility, incidental memory, and planning. A parent-report and self-report behavior rating of EF was also administered.
Recruitment from 2 tertiary-care pain clinics resulted in a sample of 26 youth with chronic pain (80.8% girls) and their parents. A comparison group of 30 youth without chronic pain and their parents were recruited from the community. Participants with chronic pain had significantly lower scores on several performance-based tests of working memory/divided attention, inhibition, and flexibility/alternating attention than the comparison group. Statistically significant group differences were also found on behavior ratings of emotion control, shifting, task initiation and completion, working memory, planning and organization, overall emotion and cognitive regulation as well as global EF. Covariate analysis was conducted in all analyses where there were significant group differences and several observed group differences remained.
This study is one of few multidimensional examinations of EF in youth with chronic pain, using a comprehensive neuropsychological test battery combined with behavior ratings. Our findings suggest EF differences in youth with chronic pain, across a variety of domains and may suggest risk for specific cognitive processing weaknesses in this population. Medical and educational teams should work toward identification, treatment, and compensatory support for EF within individualized pain management for youth.