Back pain in teens linked to substance use and poor mental health, according to University of Sydney and University of Newcastle research

ADOLESCENTS with frequent back pain are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and report feelings of anxiety and depression, according to new research led by the University of Sydney and University of Newcastle (UON).

Published on Tuesday in the Journal of Public Health, the study of more than 6000 Australian teens aged 14-to-16 found the proportion of those who reported smoking, drinking or missing school rose incrementally with increasing frequency of back pain. There was a significant difference between the mental health indicators of those who reported no pain in comparison to those with frequent back pain.

Co-author Dr Chris Williams, a Hunter New England Health clinical research fellow, says the study adds to emerging evidence of close links between musculoskeletal pain and elevated risk factors for chronic disease.

“We tend to think about these as problems that occur only in adults, but during adolescence there is a steep rise in pain from bones, joints, muscles, and back pain particularly,” Dr Williams said.

“At this stage we’re not entirely sure of the cause of this pain or how to best treat it, but for this study our focus was on potential health problems for adolescents who experience frequent and ongoing pain.”

Two independent cross-sectional data sets were used, one being a representative sample across Australia and the other from Hunter New England where the cohort had a lower socio-economic proportion. Results were relatively uniform.

They showed that 14- to-15-year-olds who experienced pain more than once a week were two-to-three times more likely to have drunk alcohol or smoked in the past month than those who rarely or never had pain.

Similarly, students who experienced pain more than once a week were around twice as likely to have missed school in the previous term.

“Our research is providing mounting evidence that pain needs to be considered as part of the broader health concerns and development of adolescents,” Dr Williams said.