Chronic Pain and Mental Health Co-Morbidity in Adolescents: An Urgent Call for Assessment and Evidence-Based Intervention

Pain Manag Nurs. 2021 Jun;22(3):252-259. doi: 10.1016/j.pmn.2020.12.004. Epub 2021 Jan 14.


Background: Nearly 30% of children are affected by chronic pain which puts a significant burden on the child's family and society with estimated cost of over $19.5 billion each year. Children and adolescent's quality of life is often impacted leading to physical disability, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, school stress or decreased performance, insomnia, and fatigue. The purposes of this paper are to: 1) provide an overview of chronic pain in children and adolescents; 2) describe findings from a quality improvement project that assessed the prevalence of negative mood, quality of life, functional disability, and coping with pain in teens with chronic pain, and 3) discuss screening, assessment and evidence-based management of co-morbid chronic pain and mental health problems in children and teens.

Findings: Findings for a quality improvement project indicated that 16.8% of the adolescents scored high risk for depression, which was higher than the national average. Approximately 57% of adolescents were screened as high risk on the Pediatric Quality of Life inventory (PedsQL™). One in four adolescents showed poor functioning on the Functional Disability Inventory and nearly one-third of the adolescents reported poor coping with pain on the Pain Coping Questionnaire. This project indicates that adolescents with chronic pain are at high risk for mental health problems. The outcomes suggest the mental health needs of adolescents with chronic pain need to be identified and addressed to help improve outcomes.

Discussion: Children and youth with chronic pain need to be routinely screened and assessed for mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression. The use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or CBT-skills building for children and youth with anxiety and depressive disorders has been widely studied and are helpful for children with chronic pain include psychoeducation, which helps the child to learn age and developmental specific information on chronic pain. Evidence-based manualized and internet-based CBT programs should be scaled rapidly to decrease depression and anxiety in children and youth with chronic pain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Chronic Pain* / complications
  • Chronic Pain* / epidemiology
  • Chronic Pain* / therapy
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Morbidity
  • Quality of Life