Children's Hospital Colorado

Chronic Pain in Children

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts longer than six months. This type of pain is a biopsychosocial experience, which means that there is an ongoing combination of biological, psychological and social factors that determine how a child feels chronic pain.

What is the difference between chronic and acute pain?

While acute pain that follows an injury is generally self-limited, in some children the pain continues beyond the expected healing time (usually defined as more than 3 to 6 months) and develops into a chronic, persistent or recurrent pain syndrome. With chronic pain, pain signals keep firing in the nervous system for weeks, months and even years.

What are the most common types of chronic pain in children?

The most common complaints for pediatric chronic pain include headaches, recurrent abdominal pain and general musculoskeletal pain, including limb pain and back pain. Pain without any known cause is also common in children.

In kids, chronic pain is often associated with missing school, difficulty maintaining social contacts, decreased participation in recreational activities and decreases in health-related quality of life.

What causes chronic pain?

Chronic pain can be caused by many different factors. There may have been an initial injury, or disease can also be the underlying cause of chronic pain (e.g., arthritis). Some children also suffer unexplained chronic pain without any past injury or evidence of body damage.

Because of the unique combination of biological, psychological and social factors in each child, the source of chronic pain can be a very complex. Ongoing pain often triggers other patterns (e.g., poor posture, reduced physical activity) or psychological dimensions that make it harder to understand and treat.

Chronic pain affects the entire nervous system and can lead to the nervous system being "wound up" and remaining in a constant state of high reactivity.

Who gets chronic pain?

Many studies suggest that approximately 30% of children and adolescents experience pain that lasts for three months or longer. Chronic pain is most common in the teenage years (age 14) and is more common in girls than in boys. Children with chronic illness or those who have experienced multiple painful procedures or surgeries are more likely to experience chronic pain.

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Get to know our pediatric experts.

Jennifer Hranilovich, MD

Jennifer Hranilovich, MD

Child Neurology

Timothy Benke, MD, PhD

Timothy Benke, MD, PhD

Child Neurology

Tiffany Banks, LCSW

Tiffany Banks, LCSW

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