Vision exams, hearing tests, dental checks, blood tests, urine tests, strep tests, food allergy tests, and more—it starts when we’re pregnant and continues as our kids go from crawling to crayons to cars.
But some important and informative tests aren’t as obvious and won’t necessarily be on your pediatrician’s to-do list.
“The problem … is a lack of any symptoms is not a guarantee that your child is OK,” says Dr. David Clark, a functional neurologist in Dallas who, among his many official specialties, is a gifted medical detective. Much of Clark’s process involves testing.
“If we evaluate these things, we don’t have to act on any of the results. But we do have the knowledge.”
Connie Tolle, a mom of two, is a believer in gathering such knowledge. She describes her daughter as a “carb-milk freak.” So when Tolle took her daughter off gluten and dairy, she was skeptical. But even 12-year-old Alexis, who is on the Asperger’s spectrum, has noticed enough of a difference to stick to it. Behaviors like flapping and jumping have almost completely gone away since she started the diet.
“I don’t want to say it’s worked wonders, but it has made a difference,” says Tolle.
So here’s the scoop on gluten and dairy sensitivities, as well as a few other tests you might want to consider. Some are covered by insurance, while others aren’t. Some can be run through a normal lab via your pediatrician; others may need a specialty lab and a medical professional who thinks a bit outside the box. All are worth considering.
1. Gluten Sensitivity
While some medical professionals believe gluten and dairy sensitivities are a bit overhyped these days, others say the conditions aren’t tested enough.
Many people are familiar with celiac disease (a medical diagnosis of gluten intolerance), but much less is understood about gluten sensitivity (which doesn’t necessarily meet the medical criteria on a celiac test but does cause problems). Some statistics indicate that 1 out of every 133 people has celiac, although many professionals say that the condition, along with gluten sensitivity, is much more prevalent. Gluten sensitivity, which is highly hereditary, can look like a bloated stomach, hyperactivity, a headache, asthma or a learning difference. Although many medical specialists consider gluten issues to be gastrointestinal track issues, they actually reflect a problem within the immune system.
“About half the people who have celiac disease have no GI symptoms, so you can’t rely on [symptoms],” says Clark. “And it doesn’t always show up as the same condition. Mom could get migraines and her child could have a speech delay. If someone has a family history of any type of chronic condition—diabetes, MS—they absolutely should have their children tested.”
As with gluten, the recommended test for dairy sensitivities is a stool antibody test, called a gene panel complete test, instead of the more commonly used blood test (which requires a much more progressed case to register). Another option is genetic testing (a DNA cheek swab) to see if you carry the genes for gluten sensitivity. And a less expensive test often recommended is to completely remove all gluten from the diet for several months—Clark recommends at least eight—to see if any changes take place. These tests can be done at any age.
2. Dairy Sensitivity
Dairy sensitivity is gluten sensitivity’s misunderstood cousin. You don’t have to look further than the dairy section at the grocery store to note the prevalence of lactose intolerance—some studies show that as many as 30 percent of Americans suffer from this inability to break down the lactose in their digestive system.
Dairy sensitivities, however, are very different from lactose intolerance. While those who are lactose intolerant can’t break down the lactose in milk and other dairy products, the immune systems of children with dairy sensitivities/allergies attack lactose or casein. Because dairy sensitivities also interfere with the immune system, symptoms can be varied and not necessarily come in the form of diarrhea or an upset stomach, as you may think.
Surprisingly, casein and whey, which are found in dairy products, are also found in products such as bread, crackers and pasta, making it tricky for parents to connect the dots.
As with gluten, the recommended test for dairy sensitivities is a stool antibody test. Removing dairy from the diet for several months can also clue you into any changes.
3. Neuromuscularskeletal Issues
Is your child a bit clumsy? Are his hips or shoulders a bit off? It could be just the way he was born (a high percentage of children develop neuromuscularskeletal issues from the birth process), but sometimes, sports can be the issue. A child who rock climbs will develop hunched shoulders. A child who plays football or dances will overdevelop certain leg muscles just as a baseball pitcher will overdevelop his pitching arm.
“Parents take their children to the dentist, but who’s looking at their spine and their nervous system?” Clark asks. “People don’t think about that.”
Sure, school nurses generally check students for scoliosis. But our attention to the neuromuscularskeletal system often stops there. Consider just one problem: being flat-footed. This may not seem like a huge issue, but it affects everything from the feet up. Yes, your child’s headaches may be connected to her feet.
Dr. Greg Dott, a Dallas DO who is certified in osteopathic manipulative medicine, worked with the Dallas Cowboys for many years in the early 2000s and also works with professional hockey, tennis, golf and basketball players in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. You don’t need to be a legend like Emmitt Smith to benefit from a neuromuscularskeletal exam, which can be done at any age.
The exam is easy. Dott starts by looking you over from toes to the top of your head. How are your feet structured? Your knees, hips, spine, shoulders? Is a muscle on one side of the body developing more to compensate for something on the other side? Even subtle abnormalities can indicate something’s going on—something that might lead to a hip replacement when your child is a senior citizen or just his grumpy behavior some Saturday afternoon.
“Sometimes I’ve had a mom that comes in and their child is playing football, gets hit, bounced back and everything’s fine,” Dott says. “If there isn’t a change in the behavior, balance, control, irritability, they’re probably OK. For the most part, that’s it. But if a child is now grumpy, irritable, and it lasts three to five days, that’s usually a good indication that something needs to be adjusted.”
Chiropractors can do similar assessments. While they are trained to adjust bones and ligaments, DOs work with your muscles to align the body properly. If more long-term adjustments need to be made, a physical therapist may be a good next step.
4. NAET Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique)
Have a child who’s not a fan of needles (rhetorical question, obviously)? NAET—a non-invasive way of testing and treating allergy sensitivities that involves balancing the nervous system and performing a muscle test—might be a good option.
You start with a strong muscle (this takes a little teaching when involving kids, who usually end up enjoying the challenge of it), then introduce the possible allergen. Everything—from a peach to pollen—has an energy to it. Your nervous system sends the message of that energy to your brain, which then responds. If it’s a no-go, your muscle responds by going weak. In other words, your child’s strong arm weakens under pressure when the allergen is being held.
Sounds like an easy test, but don’t let anyone who isn’t NAET certified try it on you (health-food stores are famous for this).
Kimberly Jones, DC of Dallas, who was an electrical/chemical engineer before going to chiropractic school, says to think of this energy as you think of electricity flowing through a wire. Jones works with pediatricians and other health-care professionals, getting a complete medical history before the NAET testing begins.
NAET testing can help determine if your child is sensitive to specific foods, proteins or amino acids within foods, or perhaps simply not absorbing foods or vitamins well.
“You can use this as a starting point or as a co-treatment,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be the end place. This is a safe place to start, but be sure to confer with your pediatrician before seeking alternative treatment.”
NAET testing also has a treatment component, which helps the body accept substances it previously did not. No needles are involved here either.
5. Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is a big newsmaker these days. New theories abound that parents’ obsession with sunscreen is causing our children’s deficiency in this vital hormone (yes, it’s called a vitamin but really isn’t one in the strictest sense).
A 2009 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 70 percent of American kids aren’t getting enough vitamin D, which is vital to the immune system. A deficiency can lead to higher blood pressure, lower levels of good cholesterol, bad bones and heart disease.
“Vitamin D is one of the things that regulates your immune system response,” Clark says. “You might see it in a child who has asthma, allergies, developmental problems. Kids should absolutely be tested. It’s such an important part of a healthy immune system.”
A simple blood test can tell you. The test should look at vitamin D 25 and vitamin D 1,25 (the sun converts 25— which is also what we take in supplemental form— into 1,25). Have both checked, usually after your child has turned 2.
Anemia ultimately means that you are not getting enough oxygen to your brain and body. Therefore, you can’t make the energy every cell needs to survive. This oxygen starvation can show up in many ways, including lack of energy, bruising, depression, pain, headaches and even ADD/ADHD symptoms.
“Iron is a necessary co-factor to make the neurotransmitter dopamine,” Clark explains. “Dopamine is crucial to [the] normal function of the frontal lobes—attention, focus, concentration.”
Iron-deficiency anemia isn’t the only kind of anemia but it is the most common. A blood test might tell you a world of information about your child’s diet. Clark cautions parents should not give their child iron without tests to determine their iron needs or deficiencies. Such tests usually aren’t performed until a child has turned 3.
7. The Gut Check
This is just a good, general assessment of what’s going on in your child’s gastrointestinal track. If your child has a tummy ache or diarrhea, that may be an indication something’s going on. But not always.
“The best test to assess for hidden gastrointestinal infections with bacteria, parasites, fungi and yeast is a stool microbial ecology profile. It’s literally a DNA typing test of a stool sample,” Clark says. “Testing for hidden gastrointestinal imbalance is a standard part of my clinical work-up for any child with a neurobehavioral symptom or diagnosed condition. Why? Hidden GI infections cause inflammation that is not limited to the GI track. Very simply, GI inflammation will cause brain inflammation. It’s just a matter of time and severity.”
Since a stool sample is all you need, this test can be done on kids of any age.