Mental Health Problems in Teens Linked to Chronic Physical Pain

mental health problemsEight percent of teens feel depressed at some point. Though it can last several months, severe cases can last for several years. One in five teens suffer from some type of depression, anxiety or mood disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Treating mental health problems usually involves medication and talking to a therapist. What is often overlooked, however, is treating the underlying chronic physical pain.

A Norwegian study focused on the connection between teens who suffer from mental illness problems and those who suffer from chronic pain. The details of the study were published in BMC Psychiatry.

The basis of the study was a questionnaire that was given to 566 teens, ages 13 to 18. The participants each suffered from depression, anxiety, ADHD or an eating disorder. They were all participants of a larger study from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Norway that took place from 2009 to 2011.

Researchers asked teenagers if they experienced physical pain. The questionnaire asked them specifically about the pain they had felt in the last month. They defined chronic pain as pain occurring from a non-injury and taking place at least once a week. The teens were asked to rate how the physical pain affected their sleep, studying, walking and participation in after-school activities or interests.

In general, 70 percent of the teens questioned said they suffered from physical pain, in addition to the mental health problem they surfer from. The percentage went up to 80 percent when factoring in only the teens who suffer from depression. One in five of the teens who took the survey reported feeling physical pain on a daily basis. They also noted a higher rate of pain in girls than boys.

It turns out that mental and physical pain share some of the same pathways. The neural part of the brain cannot decipher whether the pain is mental or physical. Both forms of pain commonly coexist. In addition, anxiety increases the pain that the teenagers feel. The combined mental problems and chronic pain often lead to low attendance and poor academic progress. Treating one pain without treating the other is not effective. The presence of chronic physical pain, if left untreated, is often the cause for mental illness relapses. The feelings of loss associated with the physical pain contributes to feeling sad.

Spotting depression in teens can be tricky. What teenager is not irritable or moody at some point? But if those symptoms are combined with a loss of interest, weight loss or weight gain, repetitive behaviors, social withdrawal, poor grades in school or frequently complaining about an upset stomach or a headache, it is worth an evaluation from a medical professional.

Early treatment for depression and other mental health disorders is necessary, as mental health problems typically develop early in life and worsen over time. Teenagers who are suicidal, for example, have a higher rate of chronic physical pain in addition to their depression. The study shows that current methods of treatment are lacking because they do not cover both the mental and physical pain that the teens are experiencing.

By Tracy Rose


Biomed Central
Eureka Alert
Psych Central

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