Is Chronic Pain Linked to Suicidal Thoughts in Teens?

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Thursday, November 3, 2011
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Chronic pain in adolescents is a risk factor for suicide ideation, according to a study published in the October issue of The Journal of Pain.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and Lehman College in New York analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included 9970 participants. Miranda A. L. van Tilburg, PhD, of UNC and colleagues examined the link between chronic pain and increased risk for suicide ideation and suicide attempt, and also assessed the relationship of pain, comorbid depression, and suicide ideation.

Previous studies in adults have shown that suffering from chronic pain can be severe enough to prompt patients to contemplate suicide, which is a major cause of death among adolescents. In 2009, 14% of adolescents polled had seriously considered suicide and 6% attempted it.

The study is the first to associate chronic pain with suicide ideation and attempt in adolescents, according to the authors, who noted that recognizing the sources of increased risk for suicide in adolescents and offering appropriate care can make a difference in saving lives.

Subjects who said they experience pain once week for at least 12 months were evaluated in the study. Suicide ideation and attempt were measured by asking subjects: “During the past 12 months, did you ever seriously think about committing suicide?” and “During the past 12 months, how many times did you attempt suicide?” Depression was measured by answers to questions on a widely used depression measurement scale.

The researchers found that, similar to adults, self reported pain was associated with increased risk of suicide ideation in adolescents and did not vary as a function of age or gender. Also, suicide attempts by adolescents with chronic pain were largely associated with depression, which is common in chronic pain patients. Therefore, they concluded that comorbid depression may further increase the risk of suicide attempt in adolescents with chronic pain.

The authors advised clinicians they should be alert to possible suicide ideation and attempt in adolescents with chronic pain and aggressively treat comorbid psychiatric disorders.


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