Public Release: 

Hidden cost of teen pain in the UK almost £4 billion per year

University of Bath

Teenagers living with chronic pain could be costing the UK more than £3.8 billion each year, according to a new study published in the journal Pain today.

Almost one in ten adolescents experience severe headaches, stomach cramps or musculoskeletal pains that keep them away from school regularly.

As part of a year-long study, the researchers have calculated that the average annual cost of treating and managing adolescent pain is more than £8,000 per patient per year, giving a conservative estimate of more than £3.8 billion for the UK as a whole.

"We hope that this establishes the seriousness of adolescent pain in a way that will help improve the provision of services in this chronically under-treated area," said Professor Chris Eccleston from the Pain Management Unit at the University of Bath and the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases.

"Chronic pain in adulthood is one of the most costly conditions in modern Western society, but very little is known about the costs of chronic pain in adolescence.

"Adolescents who experience persistent or recurrent pain also experience high levels of distress, use more health services, have more mental health and social problems, are absent from more school and tend to do worse academically than those without pain.

"Although we are beginning to know more about the psychological and social burden of chronic adolescent pain, we don't know much about the financial costs of living with, or caring for, an adolescent with chronic pain."

"Costs of the kind we have uncovered warrant attention on a national basis."

Researchers from the Pain Management Unit, the University of Kent and the London School of Economics surveyed more than 50 families who have an adolescent child who has recently used pain management services.

They asked parents to outline the additional costs that they have incurred as a direct or indirect result of their child's condition, as well as the full range of health services they have used.

They also asked them to include details of the changes they have had to make, either to their home or their working situation, to cope with the condition.

As part of the study, funded by the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, the researchers found one case where the cost of treating and supporting one child was as much as £40,000 in a single year.

Overall, the average cost for chronic pain is around £8,000 per adolescent per year. The cost was higher for patients without rheumatic diseases (£14,160) than those with rheumatic diseases (£4,495).

Whilst the majority of this financial burden is picked up by the NHS, much falls on parents and other carers.

"Parents and carers make significant adjustments to their lives in an attempt to cope with the adolescent in pain, all of which have economic consequences for families, institutions and the NHS," said Professor Eccleston.

"One mother we spoke to had to give up work to care for her child, another moved to a lower-paid job with shorter hours to have more time at home.

"Other special equipment bought by families included special beds, mattresses and pillows. A number of adolescents were on special diets or food supplements, all paid for by their families.

The research highlights an embarrassing lack of services for adolescents with chronic pain, says Professor Eccleston.

"Although adolescent pain is a major problem with long term consequences, there is a paucity in services to help those most at need," he said.

"Pain in children and adolescents can be treated, there just needs to be better support to improve the service provision for adolescents with chronic pain."

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