The Grapevine

Teenagers With Back Pain More Prone To Substance Use, Mental Health Problems

Teenagers who experience back pain often are also more likely to report school absence, cigarette smoking, and alcohol consumption, according to a new study funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.

The paper titled "Back pain, mental health and substance use are associated in adolescents" was published in the Journal of Public Health on Sept. 10.

The prevalence of musculoskeletal pain — which is felt in the muscles or bones — was found to be on the rise during adolescence, with back pain being a particularly common complaint

Nearly 6,500 adolescent participants provided their data to be examined by the research team. With the rising frequency of pain, they observed the proportion of teens who reported smoking, drinking, and missed school days also increased steadily.

In the 14-15 age range, for example, the following trend was observed — compared to those who never or rarely experienced pain, those who underwent pain more than once a week were two or three times more likely to have smoked or consumed alcohol over the past month.

The teens who experienced pain more than once a week were also two times more likely to have missed school in the previous term. While trends related to mental health problems (namely anxiety and depression) were not as concrete, the researchers did find a noticeable association when comparing teens with no pain to those who reported frequent pain.

Back pain, which is experienced by those in this age group, could potentially be a sign indicating poor overall health. Of course, if left unaddressed, this can extend into adulthood and increase the risk of chronic disease in the long run.

"Findings like this provide an argument that we should be including pain in the broader conversation about adolescent health," said lead author Steven Kamper, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, Australia. "Unfortunately our understanding of the causes and [impact of] pain in this age group is quite limited, the area is badly in need of more research."

In the past, health experts noted the tendency to dismiss symptoms as "growing pains," when treatment should be provided. While they do caution against overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment, interventions should be focused on signs of persistent pain which interferes with the quality of life. The research team behind the new study highlighted the increased risk of substance use as a major threat to well-being.

Smoking and alcohol consumption in early adolescence could increase the risk of substance abuse and mental health problems later in life. While alcohol has a strong effect on everyone, the adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable as it is still developing. Smoking is also known to hurt physical fitness, which could potentially intensify forms of chronic pain and keep them locked in this cycle.