Prevalence of chronic pain or analgesic use in children and young people and its long-term impact on substance misuse, mental illness, and prescription opioid use: a retrospective longitudinal cohort study

Andrew Lambarth, Michail Katsoulis, Chengsheng Ju, Alasdair Warwick, Rohan Takhar, Caroline Dale, David Prieto-Merino, Andrew Morris, Debajit Sen, Li Wei, Reecha Sofat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

BACKGROUND: Epidemiological studies suggest chronic and recurrent pain affects around a quarter of children, while 8% report intense and frequent pain. The long-term implications of chronic pain in childhood are uncertain. Using electronic health records (EHRs) we used both disease codes and medicines prescription records to investigate the scale of chronic pain and long-term analgesic use in children and young people (CYP), and if chronic pain and/or use of analgesic medicines at an early age is associated with substance misuse, use of prescription opioids, and poor mental health in adulthood.

METHODS: We conducted a cohort study using data from IQVIA Medical Research Data UK. We identified individuals aged 2-24 with exposure to either a diagnostic code indicating chronic pain (diagnosis-exposed), repeat prescription for medicines commonly used to treat pain (prescription-exposed), or both. Follow-up began at 25, and the unexposed population acted as comparators. We calculated hazard ratios (HR) for mental health and substance misuse outcomes, and rate ratios (RR) for opioid prescriptions in adulthood. Additionally, we investigated which diagnoses, if any, were over-represented in the prescription-exposed subgroup.

FINDINGS: The cohort constituted 853,625 individuals; 146,431 had one or more of the exposures of interest (diagnosis-exposed = 115,101, prescription-exposed = 20,298, both-exposed = 11,032), leaving 707,194 as comparators. Median age at index exposure was 18.7 years (IQR 14.7-22.3). On average during follow-up, the pooled exposed group had, respectively, a 31% and 17% higher risk of adverse mental health and substance misuse outcomes (adjusted HR [95% CI] of 1.31 [1.29-1.32] and 1.17 [1.11-1.24]). Exposed individuals also received prescription opioids at double the rate of unexposed individuals on average during follow-up (adjusted RR 2.01 [95% CI 1.95-2.10]). Outcomes varied between exposure subgroups, with prescription- and both-exposure tending to have worse outcomes. Unlike these two subgroups, in the diagnosis-exposed subgroup we did not detect a greater risk of substance misuse.

INTERPRETATION: Chronic pain in CYP is associated with increased prescription opioid use and adverse mental health outcomes in adulthood, as is repeat prescription for analgesic medicines, but only the latter is also associated with substance misuse in adulthood. It is essential to avoid the harms of under-treating pain in CYP while giving due consideration to the risks posed by analgesic medicines. Early recognition of chronic pain in CYP and utilising non-pharmacological management options may help minimise overprescribing, and long-term reliance on dependence-forming-drugs.

FUNDING: AL is an NIHR funded academic clinical fellow, and was supported by funding from UCLH Charities while carrying out this work. RS and DS are part of the Advanced Pain Discovery Platform and were supported by a UKRI and Versus Arthritis grant (MR/W002566/1) as part of the Consortium Against Pain Inequality. AW was supported by the Wellcome Trust (220558/Z/20/Z).

Original languageEnglish
Article number100763
Number of pages15
JournalThe Lancet Regional Health Europe
Early online date15 Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Chronic pain
  • Paediatric and adolescent health
  • Mental health
  • Substance misuse
  • Prescription opioids
  • Analgesic medicines


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