Psychosomatic pain in kids – when mental health physically hurts

When a part of our body hurts or does not function properly, we’ll often assume there is an underlying physical injury or illness that’s causing the pain. But that’s not always the case. 

When a parent asks a GP to assess their child’s persistent headache, stomach pain, earache or nausea, they may hear something surprising. That, despite the routine checks and tests the doctor has performed, the child is healthy and there doesn’t appear to be a physical cause of the pain.  

If you find yourself in this situation, your child may be suffering from psychosomatic pain or dysfunction. In this blog, we’ll explore what this challenge looks like and how to address it. 

What is psychosomatic pain?

Psychosomatic illnesses are physical symptoms caused, or exacerbated, by an emotional or mental issue rather than a physical injury or disorder.

You may have heard of the “mind-body link” and it’s this idea which underpins psychosomatic illnesses. When we’re in emotional distress, our body shows it and can present as physical pain and dysfunction.

A common misconception is that psychosomatic conditions are imaginary or only exist in a child’s head. This is not the case, the pain is real and physically located in the body. These pains require treatment just as any other illness would. And importantly, psychosomatic pain in children can also signal that something in their life is troubling them. 

Causes of psychosomatic pain

Emotional stress seems to be a main trigger of psychosomatic illnesses in children. One team of researchers found that in a group of children they studied, 50% complained about medically unexplained symptoms. They found that these psychosomatic disorders were frequently associated with depression and anxiety. 

Psychosomatic symptoms could also be a result of:

  • Family conflict 
  • Problems at school (e.g. bullying)
  • Peer pressure
  • Chronic disease or disability in parents
  • Moving house or other changes

Diagnosis and treatment

The only way to determine whether the cause of your child’s pain is medical or psychosomatic is to see a healthcare professional. The first step will often involve tests to rule out any underlying disease or abnormal pathology. 

If the doctor concludes that the cause of the pain is psychosomatic, you may then be referred to a  mental healthcare professional. The type of treatment will depend on your child’s circumstances and what may be causing their psychosomatic pain and dysfunction. For example, there may be an underlying challenge such as depression, anxiety or OCD, which will need to be addressed. In other children, the root cause of their distress can be less specific and may be influenced by external factors, or certain events happening in their life.  

At Wise Institute, we offer a number of approaches to psychosomatic pain, ensuring that you can tackle the challenge together and that your entire family is supported as you come to a resolution.