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Chronic Pain in Parents May Be Associated with Chronic Pain in Adolescents

By: Barbara Sadick

A recent study indicates that chronic pain in parents may be associated with chronic pain in their adolescent and young adult children.

Chronic pain is real pain that doesn’t go away, and may or may not have been originally set off by a specific event.  But many people also suffer from chronic pain with no known origin.

For the purpose of this study, strict definitions of chronic pain were used.  Chronic nonspecific pain is pain in at least one location and chronic multisite pain is pain in at least three locations.

The intent of the study, published online on November 19, 2012 in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, was to look at the association of parental chronic pain with chronic pain in adolescents and young adult children.  It also tracked whether psychological, economic, socioeconomic, or family structure might explain the relationship between parental and child chronic pain.

The study design, cross-sectional or observational, looks at specific chronic pain characteristics of an entire population group in one Norwegian town.   Survey questions were asked to 5,370 adolescents and young adults ages 13-18 and to at least one and sometimes both parents of each participant.

The teens and young adults were asked if they’d experienced pain unrelated to a specific disease or injury at any time during the three previous months.  If they had, they were asked to specify the location and frequency of that pain.  Parents were also asked if they’d experienced chronic pain that lasted for more than six months and to rate the severity of that pain.  Both parents and children were asked to describe their pain in detail, and all participants were given clinical exams.

“The study showed that both maternal chronic pain and paternal chronic pain are associated with chronic nonspecific pain and especially with chronic multi-site pain in adolescents and young adults,” said lead study author Gary Hoftun, MD, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  “We found a substantial increase in pain among offspring for whom both parents reported chronic pain.”

When adjusted for socioeconomic and psychological factors, the outcomes remained the same, but when adjusted for family structure, outcomes differed.  Among adolescents living with mothers only, chronic pain was associated with increased odds of non-specific pain, and when living with fathers only, a less strong association was found.  Chronic pain was also found to be lower among children living with both parents.

In Norway, the government helps with support for single parents, so economic conditions probably didn’t play a major role in this study.  Instead, chronic pain in both two parent and single parent households may be an indication of anxiety, depression, and other general stress factors in the family environment. 

Gerard Banez, PhD, Director for the Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Program at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital says these findings are consistent with what he sees when treating children for chronic pain.  While he says reasons for pain are numerous and may involve genetic or biologic factors, environment plays a significant role in coping with and functioning with pain.

“As common as chronic pain is,” says Banez, “it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause.  At the Cleveland Clinic, I work with parents to help them better themselves so that they can help their children, because if parents are more healthy and well, kids will follow.”  He notes that the study finding that if both parents have pain, children will be at higher risk for pain may be due to stress and emotional upset affecting all family members.”

“In my work,” continues Banez, “I find it especially challenging to treat children whose parents also have pain.  In order for kids to have the best outcomes, parents need to also get better.”

The implication of the study is that parents should be involved in the management of nonspecific pain in their children and be made aware of their own chronic pain.  And because the findings are from a large epidemiological population study, they are likely to apply to most population groups.

The results of this study are strong enough to warrant additional observational long-term studies.

Related to:Chronic Pain