Understanding Psychosomatic Pain in Young People

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Young people with psychosomatic symptoms experience pain or other bodily symptoms – but without an underlying medical explanation. This pain can be mild or severe and take different forms, from headaches to stomach pain to vomiting.

Psychosomatic symptoms are still real and not something that a young person is imagining – they just don’t have a specific medical cause.

Psychosomatic symptoms can be very distressing for both young people and their parents. Young people may at first receive the wrong kind of treatment and find that their symptoms don’t go away.

Even when symptoms are correctly identified as psychosomatic, it can be hard to understand that they don’t have a clear cause, and perhaps not a clear solution.

While treatment for psychosomatic symptoms isn’t always easy, recovery is possible. By focusing on the mind-body connection and addressing psychological concerns like anxiety or depression, many young people learn to manage or recover from psychosomatic pain and reclaim a higher quality of life.

This blog offers some more information about psychosomatic symptoms and how they affect children and adolescents. It also looks into the possible causes of psychosomatic pain – and explores what treatments are available.

What Are Psychosomatic Symptoms in Young People and What Causes Them?

Psychosomatic symptoms in young people are usually physical pains in the body, such as headaches, abdominal pain, or chest pain.

While psychosomatic symptoms may seem to point to an underlying medical condition or diagnosis, medical investigations are unable to find a medical explanation for their experiences. 

When understanding psychosomatic symptoms, it can help to think about pain as a kind of signal. Usually, we feel pain when there is something wrong in the body that we need to be alerted to so that we can treat it or take care of it.

Sometimes, however, our bodies may send these signals without the usual cause – a bit like a false alarm. But this doesn’t mean that everything is okay.

There may still be reasons why the body is sending these signals – or why our signalling symptoms aren’t working normally – that can be identified and treated. 

Research shows that psychosomatic disorder is common among children and adolescents who go to the emergency department because they’re experiencing physical pain.

Young people who have psychosomatic pain may have experienced pain for longer, missed more school days, and face significant challenges in daily life.

Psychosomatic Symptoms and the Mind-Body Connection

Although psychosomatic symptoms may be described as ‘psychological’, this doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t real or that young people are imagining it.

Our minds and bodies are connected and this means that emotions, feelings, or other mental states can cause real feelings in our bodies, including pain.

One study found that 79% of young people aged 8-15 who had recurrent abdominal pain also had an anxiety disorder, while 43% had a depressive disorder.

Young people with psychosomatic pain may experience different types of stressors, such as academic work, social relationships, or family life.

While psychosomatic symptoms don’t always have a clear explanation, feelings of anxiety, emotional distress, and other difficult mental states may play a big role. Psychological distress might mean that young people’s minds and bodies aren’t able to function as usual, causing experiences of pain without an underlying medical cause.

From another angle, their pain is signalling that something is wrong – but the problem is anxiety, stress, or other psychological conditions, rather than the usual medical one.

Psychosomatic Symptoms and Poorly Understood Disorders

Sometimes, psychosomatic symptoms may be related to certain health conditions that scientists don’t understand well. Some of these include:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia

While scientists may not have a clear understanding of these disorders, there are still treatments available that have been effective for many young people. When a young person has unexplained pains, doctors may check for these conditions, and explain what treatment approaches are available.

What Is the Link Between Psychosomatic Symptoms and Bullying?

Bullying is a common cause of psychological distress among young people. Children who are bullied are at a greater risk of developing mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or schizophrenia.

Bullying is common in school-aged children: in the UK, 1 in 4 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 experience bullying each year.

Research shows that children and adolescents who have been bullied are significantly more likely to experience psychosomatic symptoms than those who have not.

Experts emphasise that bullying should be considered a global public health problem that seriously affects the mental and physical well-being of young people all around the world.

What Are the Most Common Psychosomatic Symptoms in Children and Adolescents?

A study among school children aged 11-17 in Ireland found that headaches were the most commonly reported somatic symptom among both girls and boys.

At age 17, 44.4% of girls and 23.8% of boys reported weekly headaches. Stomachaches, dizziness, and back pain were also common.

A second study among 11-16-year-olds in Britain found that 53% had experienced abdominal pain in the past three months. Abdominal pains were linked to emotional symptoms and medical consultations. Around 36% of young people reported considerable impairment as a result of their pains.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

When a young person is experiencing health symptoms, the first step is to receive an accurate diagnosis from a health professional. If a young person has physical pains, they should visit a doctor to check for medical explanations – even if you or they think it could be psychosomatic.

If a doctor is unable to identify an underlying medical diagnosis or another explanation (such as side effects from medication), they may refer you to a mental health professional with expertise in somatic disorders – or you could contact one directly.

If a healthcare professional identifies a young person’s symptoms as psychosomatic, but the young person is still unsure about the cause of their pain, you could ask for more medical examinations to test for further medical explanations. You could also ask for a second opinion from another doctor.

When a young person has psychosomatic symptoms or has been diagnosed with a psychosomatic disorder, parents should understand and validate their experiences. Psychosomatic pain is real, and young people deserve care, treatment, and support. 

What Does Treatment for Psychosomatic Symptoms Involve?

The best way to support a young person with psychosomatic pain is to help them access professional medical care.

Health professionals may suggest different types of treatment that can help a young person to manage their pain, depending on the kind of pain they are experiencing and other factors that may play a role.

Some young people may benefit from talking therapy (such as cognitive-behavioural therapy) to help manage and reduce their pain.

Cognitive behavioural therapy aims to identify the links between the psychosomatic pains, worries, and feelings that a young person experiences. It also supports young people to develop coping strategies and skills to improve both somatic and psychological symptoms.

In some cases, medication can help young people to manage symptoms. Anti-depressant medications may reduce feelings of pain, even when a person isn’t depressed.

However, medications also come with risks and side effects, including dependence. Doctors and other healthcare professionals should always weigh up the risks and benefits of medication for each young person.

Sometimes, psychosomatic symptoms can be caused by problems in the nervous system. As well as psychotherapy, neurologists may recommend other treatment options such as physiotherapy or occupational therapy.

Treating Psychosomatic Pain and Co-Occurring Disorders

For young people living with unexplained pains and a co-occurring disorder like anxiety or depression, treating both conditions at the same time is really important.

Pain and bodily symptoms can make anxiety or depression worse, leading to a vicious cycle of worsening psychological symptoms and somatic pain.

Young people with co-occurring disorders may benefit from psychotherapy, medication, mind-body approaches, creative arts therapy, and other treatment options, depending on the condition and their individual needs.

With effective treatment, young people can change the vicious cycle into a positive one, of improving mental health and recovery from pain.

Life-Style Changes

Alongside clinical approaches, healthcare professionals may work with young people to make lifestyle changes that aim to improve their overall well-being and reduce somatic pain.

They may identify certain goals that both the young person and the professional think could help improve their symptoms, such as regular sleep patterns, exercise, or self-care practices.

The Wave Clinic – Transformative Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs for young people, supporting them on a journey of holistic healing and positive growth.

Our whole-person approach combines exceptional clinical care with education, community responsibility, and a gap year experience, helping young people to discover new life paths and develop the skills they need to follow them.

Our programs are rooted in a philosophy of fairness and inclusivity. Through our programs, young people grow in self-confidence, build relationships with others, and learn to embrace their true selves. 

Our clinical and medical care is based on the most up-to-date evidence-based approaches, delivered by experts in teenage and adolescent care from around the world. We offer intensive care facilities for young people at most risk, ensuring their safety at all times.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today to learn more about what we have to offer.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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