Long-term use of painkillers in people under the age of 25 raises the risk of poor mental health and substance abuse later in life, a study has found.

The results of the study, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, suggest that 29% of people under the age of 25 with chronic pain were likely to develop a mental illness in adulthood. However, the risk of mental illness increased to 46% when they were on a prescription painkiller.

Chronic pain is a persistent pain condition that affects the daily life of the affected person. It can occur due to several conditions such as arthritis, injuries or cancer. Pain management involves identifying the underlying issue and treatment for symptom relief, including the use of painkiller medications.

The researchers of the study also noticed a link between being on prescription painkillers at a young age and increased use of opioids in later life. The findings suggest that those on painkillers were at an 82% higher risk of developing substance abuse.

Researchers made the findings after adjusting other factors, including gender, deprivation, smoking status, alcohol use, BMI, year of birth, prior mental illness and prior substance misuse.

The study examined the health outcomes of 853,625 participants between two and 24 years. Of the total participants, 115,101 had chronic pain, 20,298 were on repeat prescriptions for painkillers, and 11,032 were diagnosed with chronic pain and prescribed painkillers.

The participants were followed up for an average of five years after the age of 25. During the follow-up, 11,644 participants developed substance misuse, 143,838 had poor mental health and 77,337 received at least one opioid prescription.

"It's clear that chronic pain management in young people needs to be optimized. We know that treating pain can cause harm in both the short- and long-term, but it's also essential to avoid over-reliance on medicines that could lead to dependence on prescription or non-prescription drugs in later life. We now need to work with all health care providers to help them weigh up the risks and benefits of prescribing painkillers at a young age and encourage the consideration of other recognized and effective non-drug management approaches," Dr. Andrew Lambarth, a researcher from the University of London, said in a news release.

"These trends are concerning as those under 25 are particularly vulnerable. This means regular use of painkillers to ease chronic pain may lead to an unintentional over-reliance on pain medication in adult life. Exploring when the right time is to refer these young people to specialized pain services for more targeted support will also be a vital factor when revamping pain management practice," noted Professor Reecha Sofat, a researcher from the University of Liverpool.

Researchers suggest that the overreliance on pain relief could be due to multiple factors; one of them could be that young people who received painkillers may have had more severe or frequent pain, possibly due to a different cause.