Chronic pain is difficult to endure at any age, but the condition presents particular challenges for teens, who must navigate normal growing pains with the added weight of an ongoing health condition.
While injuries, nerve damage, and other health conditions are sometimes to blame for chronic pain among teenagers, there’s also an emerging connection with mental health. Norwegian researchers found 70% of teenagers experiencing psychiatric problems such as depression and anxiety were also affected by chronic pain. Mood and anxiety disorders were the most commonly implicated conditions.
The most common type of chronic pain in younger people is abdominal pain, but headaches, migraines, and back pain are also common, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. The study examined the growing problem of teenagers facing chronic pain. Related hospital admissions rose ninefold from 2004 to 2010, the study reported.
Despite the high number of teens experiencing both mental health problems and chronic pain, awareness among health care providers about the connection remains low, according to the Norwegian researchers.
Fortunately, an increasing number of resources are becoming available to help teenagers manage chronic pain. Websites like Growing Pains have developed to give teenagers and their parents guidance and support for living with chronic pain.
Online websites aim to help teens learn to cope while living with chronic pain.
Growing Pains is run by the American Chronic Pain Association in an effort to meet the unique needs of teenagers facing chronic pain. The site offers basic information and tips about living with chronic pain, but it also functions as a social network, connecting teens with others who are likeminded.
Free registration is required to access the social networking part of the site. Once registered to Growing Pains, posters have the opportunity to maintain an online journal—which can be kept private—and post pictures or other types of content in order to share their experiences and find other people who feel the same way.
The social network Growing Pains caters to teenagers living with chronic pain.
When first logging onto the site, the homepage features a box that asks how visitors are feeling today. By typing in a word—“tired,” for example—web visitors will then see a slew of animated green leafs titled with the specified emotion along with other, related ones. Growing Pains calls the green labeled leafs WordLeafs. These images function like hashtags, offering a way to filter content and find the most helpful information.
Any type of information, from pictures to poems, uploaded onto the network can be kept private or shared. The site says that sometimes words aren’t enough to convey emotions; uploading artwork or other images may help teens fully express how they’re feeling.
After uploading content that teens wish to share, they’ll be able to tag it with WordLeafs such as “guilty,” “apprehensive,” “really happy,” “stressed,” or “nauseous” so that others can search the terms and connect.
Growing Pains also offers teens the ability to message one another and talk about how they’re dealing with specific problems related to chronic pain.
The site features generalized information sections, available to registered and non-registered users alike, designed to provide teens and their parents with information and ways of looking at chronic pain to improve quality of life.
For example, one of the first pages on Growing Pains reads, “accept the pain,” and then notes that accepting pain’s existence “doesn’t mean you ‘threw in the towel.’ It means you are realistic about what your situation is—and you are willing to work toward a better way of life.”
The site urges teens to remember that having chronic pain is not their entire identity. Teens are also urged to continue participating in enjoyable activities and maintain some semblance of normal life.
The wealth of information available to teens with chronic pain aims to reduce feelings of aloneness and improve symptom management.
Other websites are also available for teens learning to live with chronic pain. Teen Pain Help, for example, is run by a teenager who experienced chronic pain and wanted to help others navigate the path. The website lacks a social networking component, but features an array of information about getting through daily life and tips for working with doctors.
Treating mental health issues in teens with chronic pain is integral to overall pain management, doctors say.
Finding other teens to talk with is critical for those experiencing chronic pain. Social connections support improved mental health, an important consideration because of the link between mental health and chronic pain in teens. Norwegian researcher Wenche Langfjord Mangerud, who participated in the study revealing that up to 70% of teens with depression or anxiety also experience pain, says the two conditions cannot be treated separately. He adds:
“Both anxiety and depression on their own can decrease the quality of life for these adolescents. Now we see they also suffer from chronic pain. To treat anxiety in a positive way, physical pain must also be treated and vice versa.”
It’s important for teens to find effective treatments before they grow into adults, Mangerud adds.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is successful in the fight against teenage chronic pain.
One type of therapy researchers say is helpful for teens experiencing chronic pain is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of psychotherapy involves a therapist helping the patient explore thought patterns and associated behaviors. Through the therapy, patients learn how to identify and then change their thoughts to healthier ones.
CBT has become a first-line therapy for chronic pain for children, teenagers, and adults, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Therapists may help teenagers experiencing chronic pain learn relaxation techniques. Teens may also learn how to change depressive or anxious thoughts into healthier, more self-supportive ones.
An analysis of studies examining the effects of CBT on chronic pain in teens found the therapy improved pain by more than 50%, according to APA.
What do you think about the link between mental health issues and chronic pain in teens?
Image by Nathan Csonka via Flickr