Is Back Pain Linked To Mental Health Problems In Teens?

Is Back Pain Linked To Mental Health Problems In Teens?

Back pain is an extremely common physical condition for people of all ages; but is this pain connected to mental health problems? 

According to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain is the single leading cause of disability. They further state back pain can affect people of all ages, including children and adolescents.

Reports explain back pain in children starts to increase once they begin school. As they grow each year, the number of students with back pain also grows. Unfortunately, not many will seek medical care unless the symptoms become severe.

Risky Behavior Is Growing – Is It Due to Pain?

This pain may be one reason researchers are finding a link between the back pain an adolescent has and risky behaviors they exhibit.

Meaning, adolescents who suffer from back pain are developing negative habits such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

Furthermore, these same adolescents were found to have an increase in mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

In research studies, teens with back pain were compared to teens without back pain. It has been found the teens with back pain engaged in risky behaviors and experienced negative mental health.

Before saying yes, back pain is linked to mental health problems in teens, it is important to learn more about back pain, how it is diagnosed, teen mental health and how they may be connected.

Reasons for Back Pain in Teens

It has been reported that by the age of 15, up to 70 percent of children will report some type of back pain.

Many times, we categorize pains in teens as “growing pains”. We dismiss their pains as ordinary and something to be expected as they grow.

However, back pain can be caused by many things, in addition to growing bones.

Sports Injuries

Sports injuries can create strain on a back. Extracurricular activities such as dancing, gymnastics, and athletics can often lead to overuse of muscles in the body, especially the back.

This overuse can make it hard for your teen to function if it is not treated properly. Even a backpack that is too heavy may cause back pain.

Other Reasons

Reasons not related to actions include scoliosis and spondylolysis, or other genetic problems, can lead to back pain in teenagers. These can also be aggravated by injuries or overuse.

More general reasons for back pain include

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

While many teens who experience back pain will recover without the help of a doctor, there are times when it is important to seek medical attention. For instance, if your teen’s back pain appeared suddenly and for no apparent reason.

Other signs you need immediate help include:

Furthermore, if you notice your teen taking part in negative or risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking or using drugs, have a doctor determine the root cause.

What to Expect When Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will first complete a full history, psychological and physical exam of your teen to determine the source of his or her pain.

Your doctor will be looking for red flags, reasons for the pain.

Red flags can be

Your doctor will evaluate psychosocial stressors and if so, will develop proper interventions.

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How is Back Pain Linked to Teen Mental Health Problems?

In a study of 200,000 participants, it was found that those who had back pain, also had mental health issues.

This is the largest study connecting back pain and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and even psychosis.

The Connection

In studying adolescents specifically, girls were found to have more psychological issues than males. However, it was noted that pain and mental health problems go hand in hand and should be studied further.

Research is also needed to determine whether pain creates a mental illness or if a mental illness creates pain.

To date, both are found to be true.

For example, some reports show substance abuse and anxiety disorders precede chronic low back pain. On the other hand, depressive disorders can come before or after pain.

Why Is There a Connection?

The connection may be that when your body is in physical distress, as with back pain, you become distressed psychologically. And being mentally distressed can lead to more physical stress.

It is a cycle that must be broken to avoid more severe damage, mentally and physically.

Musculoskeletal pain is on the rise, according to national research organizations. This is pain felt by teens in the bones and muscles and is quite common among teens today.

During their research of over six thousand teenagers, analysts found those who reported pain, also reported missing school, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.

A Cycle

In addition, the more pain experienced, the more the teen participated in negative behaviors. Whether the teen was using substances to help alleviate the pain is unclear, only that they were connected.

The National Pain Report examined teens with psychiatric problems. The researchers found seven out of ten adolescents with mental illness also reported having chronic pain.

This translates to close to 80 percent of teens who reported having anxiety or depression having the highest rates of pain.


Anytime a teen expresses having pain in their back, pay attention.

Ask questions and seek medical help, whether you think it is serious or not.

You may even want to ask your doctor for a referral. There are specialists in the field of pain management that can inform you of all treatment options.

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