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|How Sweet It Is Dulls Pain for Some Kids|
Normal-weight kids with a sweet tooth
find that a sugary solution held in the mouth takes the edge off
Yet the pain-killing effects of sucrose appear to be
lost on overweight kids, on children who don't care for the sweet
stuff, and on adults.
In a study published in the Dec. 15
issue of the journal Pain, investigators found that normal-weight
young fans of candy and the lot who put their hands into a bucket of
frigid water can tolerate the pain longer when they've got a mouth
full of sugar.
The findings suggest that for children - but
not for adults - the ability of sugar to take the edge off of pain
is related to their preference for sweet tastes and their weight,
according to M. Yanina Pepino, Ph.D., and Julie Mennella, Ph.D., of
the Monell Chemical Senses Center here.
finding may reflect differences in brain chemistry systems," Dr.
Mennella said. "Additional studies clearly are needed to evaluate
how dietary habits and individual differences contribute to
preference for sweet taste in children and its physiological
The analgesic properties of sugar-sucrose in
infancy have been well documented. Babies in pain quiet down quicker
when sugar water is placed on their tongues rather than plain
Yet little is known about whether the pain-numbing
effects of sugar can still be seen in older children or adults, or
whether sugar's effectiveness as an analgesic varies from one person
to the next.
"Because individual variations in sweet
preferences exist at both ends of the age spectrum, the present
study tested the hypothesis that sucrose would be more effective in
reducing pain in those who prefer sweet tastes," the authors
They recruited 242 children from the ages of five to
10 years and their mothers to take part in a study to determine the
preferred level of sweetness and how effective sucrose was at
alleviating pain associated with a standard but harmless pain test
(cold pressor test).
The subjects were first tested for their
sweetness preferences by giving them solutions with various
concentrations of sucrose.
In a separate session, they were
asked to place their hands into a body-temperature bath for two
minutes, then transfer them to a cold-water bath (10 degrees C, or
50 degrees F) and keep them there for as long as they could tolerate
it. Thirty seconds before transferring their hands to chilly water,
the subjects were given either a 24% weight by volume sucrose
solution at room temperature to hold in their mouths without
The 24% solution was chosen because it has been
to be an effective pain killer for day-old infants, the
The study outcome measures were pain
thresholds, defined as the time to first indication of discomfort,
and pain tolerance, determined by the length of time the hand was
kept submerged in frigid water.
The authors found that
children as a group preferred significantly higher sucrose
concentrations than did adults, but with enough individual
differences to allow grouping in to sweet and less-sweet
Sugar was not effective as an analgesic among the
mothers, regardless of their preferences for degree of
In contrast, "the more children liked sucrose, the
better its efficacy as an analgesic," the authors wrote. "That is,
children who preferred > 24% weight by volume sucrose exhibited
an increased latency to report pain and tolerated pain for
significantly longer periods of time when sucrose was held in their
mouths relative to water."
They also found that among the
group of kids who liked sweeter tastes, sucrose significantly
increased pain thresholds for those in the normal weight range, but
not for kids who were overweight or at risk for being overweight
(based on CDC pediatric growth charts).
analgesic mechanism of action is not fully understood, there is
clinical evidence to suggest that it triggers endogenous opiates
such as endorphins, and perhaps that information could be used in
future studies of pain perception and relief, the authors
"Children and adults differ with regard to a wide
variety of physiological and endocrine differences, and future
studies should identify variables that promote or impede the ability
of sweet taste to act as an analgesic in both children and adults,"
Dr. Pepino said.