Attention and Working Memory in Female Adolescents With Chronic Pain and Pain-free Female Adolescents: A Preliminary Pilot Study

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Adolescents with chronic pain often report inattention and poor memory. There has been little research on cognitive function in this population. The goal of this preliminary pilot study was to examine differences in cognitive function between adolescents with chronic pain to pain-free adolescents.

Materials and Methods:

All participants completed baseline assessments of pain, school absences, depression, anxiety, and sleep habits. Standardized neurocognitive tests were used to examine cognitive function with a focus on working memory and attention.


Recruitment from the chronic pain clinic resulted in a female sample of 13 individuals (largely reflective of the clinical population). Pain-free age-matched and sex-matched individuals (n=12) were therefore also recruited as controls. Individuals with chronic pain had significantly lower working memory scores than controls. Differences were found between groups on the most difficult selective attention task and not on tests of sustained attention, divided attention, or attentional switching. In a stepwise regression with baseline characteristics entered in the first step, pain accounted for approximately 15% of the variance in working memory and medication score counted for 49% of the variance.


This pilot study is the first study to examine differences in working memory and attention between participants with chronic pain and pain-free adolescents. Our findings suggest that chronic pain may negatively affect adolescents’ working memory function and highlights the risk for cognitive difficulties and problems with educational progression in addition to negative health and social effects associated with chronic pain. The study provides a starting point for more research and has the potential to direct better identification and treatment of these cognitive deficits.

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