Girls who had been bullied were also more likely than boys to have recently taken painkillers.
A recent study of Icelandic school children found that those who reported being bullied were twice as likely to use pain medication as non-bullied children.
The study, conducted in 2018 and published in Acta Paediatrica, surveyed over 10,000 kids aged 11 to 15. Close to 600 reported being victims of peer bullying two times per month or more, and it was found that these kids reported significantly higher rates of pain and use of medication for pain.
The medications involved in the study were common over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen.
The children surveyed reported experiencing headaches, stomach pain, back pain, and neck/shoulder pain, and one in four of all surveyed kids who had some kind of pain at least once per week had taken an analgesic in the past week.
Over twice as many bullied kids had taken a painkiller in the past week as non-bullied kids, at 33.5% and 15.2%, respectively. Girls were also more likely than boys to have recently taken painkillers, but controlling for all factors, bullied kids were more likely to turn to pills.
“The use of analgesics was significantly higher among bullied students even when controlling for pain, age, gender and socioeconomic status,” lead study author Pernilla Garmy told Reuters. “Bullied students tended to experience more pain than the non-bullied students, and bullied students were twice as likely to use pain medication even when controlling for experienced pain.”
Studies have already found a link between bullying and chronic pain. One 2015 study found that psychosocial stress, such as that arising from bullying, abuse, and family conflict, was a risk factor for this kind of pain in adolescents, and similar results have been found in studies about workplace bullying and harassment.
This latest study adds to this evidence while also suggesting that using painkillers is more likely with those experiencing psychosocial stress, and not necessarily just because the pain exists.
“My hypothesis of the link between bullying and painkiller use could be that if you are feeling satisfied and safe, and then get a headache, you might cope with the pain without medication,” said Garmy. “But if you are feeling sad and unsecure—a common experience by bullied children and adolescents—the pain might be overwhelming and there is a need for use of analgesics.”
The study concludes by recommending greater recognition of the “high prevalence of pain and the use of pain medication in children” among health professionals as well as coordinated efforts for intervention and prevention.
Although most over-the-counter analgesics are safe for adolescent children in small doses, there are concerns about overuse and “negative side effects that can worsen when combined with other coping behaviors such as alcohol.