Chronic pain is common in young people. Between 11% and 38% of children and adolescents may cope with chronic pain as part of their everyday lives. Chronic pain is often invisible and unseen by others, an unrecognised challenge that affects a young person’s emotional, physical, and social well-being.
With the right support and treatment, young people can learn to manage chronic pain, but it can take some time to find the best way to do it. This blog offers some information about how chronic pain affects the lives of young people, how treatment can help, and what tips might benefit a young person’s journey.
How Does Chronic Pain Affect the Lives of Young People?
Chronic pain affects young people’s lives in lots of different ways. Young adults have described how their pain impacts their social life, emotions, relationships, and role-taking in their work, community, and family.
Young Social Lives
Chronic pain can have a big effect on young people’s social lives. They may not always be able to join in with activities, outings, or other ways that their peers spend time together.
Parts of romantic relationships may be more difficult to navigate: many young people with chronic pain feel anxious about finding a partner or having lasting relationships.
Adolescents and young adults often highlight that the ‘invisibleness’ of chronic pain makes these things particularly hard. When other people do not see, understand or recognise their experience, it makes it less likely that peers act or spend time together in a way that considers and includes a young person with chronic pain.
On the other hand, when this recognition exists, young people can work together to find ways to co-exist that everyone can enjoy. This might mean spending time in places, at times of day, or for lengths of time that are more manageable for someone with chronic pain.
It might also mean checking in with how they are feeling and ready to change plans or offer support if needed. With understanding and recognition, young people with chronic pain can lead fulfilling social lives built upon close relationships with others.
Chronic pain can take a lot of time and energy to manage, preventing young people from engaging in some of the things they want to do or enjoy.
Enduring pain itself can have a big emotional impact and at times may make life feel almost unbearable. People with chronic pain often have difficulty sleeping, affecting their energy and physical and emotional health.
These experiences can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and a loss of sense of self among young people. They may also feel hopeless, exhausted, or worried about the future. One-third of young people seeking hospital treatment for chronic pain experience co-occurring mental health disorders.
For young people with chronic pain, taking steps to seek treatment and manage their condition can greatly improve their emotional well-being too.
Treatment (for both mental and physical health conditions) can help reduce levels of pain and give young people the skills to cope with it. Some young people also benefit from re-organising parts of their lives so they can still do things they love and enjoy, even if in a different way than before.
Managing School or Work
Chronic pain can sometimes make school feel overwhelming, exhausting, and hard to manage. Young people may be preoccupied with thoughts about pain, making it difficult to focus on or complete school work. They may also find themselves unable to attend all their classes and miss out on parts of their education.
As young adults, finding and sustaining work can be hard, especially when workplaces are inflexible and unwilling to make changes that fit the needs of someone with chronic pain.
But while we still have a long way to go in terms of recognition and support for chronic pain, there may be additional support available. Young people with chronic pain may have access to special educational needs and disability support in school, which can go a long way to making workloads more manageable.
Workplaces may also support people with chronic pain or offer, for example, the chance for young adults to work from home. Speaking with a social worker may help young people understand what kind of support they are entitled to or how to advocate for their needs.
Family and Support
Young people often talk about how supportive their families are in coping with chronic pain. Families may help with managing healthcare appointments or support young people with some of the tasks of everyday life.
But in some cases, young people’s dependence on their family can interfere with their social development during adolescence and young adulthood, something that often comes with a need for greater independence and autonomy.
Finding a balance between autonomy and support is important for young people – with or without chronic pain. For those with chronic pain, finding this balance may take extra care and attention.
Reaching out to other community members or using different support structures may help to enable independence while maintaining support and care.
What Is the Relationship Between Chronic Pain and Young People’s Mental Health?
Chronic pain can have a big effect on young people’s emotional and social well-being. For some young people, it may lead to the development of mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. Mental health disorders can, in turn, make pain more intense and harder to cope with.
Research shows that young people with chronic pain are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviour disorders.
Chronic pain is also linked with mental health disorders during adulthood: young people who had chronic pain during adolescence later reported higher level rates of anxiety and depression disorders over their lifetime.
For young people with chronic pain, mental health support can be as important as physical therapies, medication, and other pain management strategies.
Psychological support, including cognitive-behavioural therapy and other therapeutic treatments, can help young people manage anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms caused by chronic pain and promote long-term mental well-being. Because our minds and bodies are so connected, psychological support can also help to reduce the pain itself.
Building a Fulfiling Life and Future with Chronic Pain: Some Tips and Ideas
Managing chronic pain isn’t easy. It’s okay for young people to feel frustrated, sad, angry, and any other feelings. It may take some time to accept chronic pain and that’s okay – there is no need to push for acceptance when they are not ready.
But it’s important to remember that young people can find peace with chronic illness, and build lives in which they thrive. Treatment for chronic pain and co-occurring mental health concerns can make a huge difference, as can support from family, friends, and teachers.
Below are some other tips for young people on coping with chronic pain. It may help to:
- Adapt hobbies and activities to meet new physical and mental needs
- Look for new hobbies that they can enjoy
- Be kind to themselves, and allow themselves to experience different emotions
- Find a community of other young people with chronic pain
- Reach out to others for support, including friends, family members, or a new group of people
- Be proactive in managing physical and mental health conditions
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