A Pained Life: Does Child Abuse Cause Chronic Pain?

By Carol Levy, Columnist

The idea of childhood trauma or abuse leading to chronic pain in adulthood has always bothered me.

The idea that trauma/abuse can change the neural system sounds intriguing, but has yet to be proven. The studies I have seen do not prove a connection, only a link.

I was abused as a child.  I have almost no memory of my childhood, but I fit the profile. Two siblings also circumstantially validated it.

My trigeminal neuralgia is a symptom of a neurovascular birth defect that I was unaware of until the pain was diagnosed. My pain started as typical trigeminal neuralgia; out of the blue a horrendous, excruciating, world bending pain. It lasted only a few seconds then disappeared.

I have a birthmark in the exact area of the pain which anatomically corresponds to the pained area and trigeminal nerve distribution in the face. It's presence, as well as the fact that it is 'vascularized' (can change color), is a sign of the birth defect.

Growing up my sister would sometimes say, “You're upset.” I’d deny it and she'd smile knowingly, “Yes you are. Your birthmark's out.”

I am lucky in that this birth defect often comes with other terrible consequences; paralysis, blindness, intellectual deficit, and psychiatric disorders. That may be the only time the words “luck” and “trigeminal neuralgia” have gone hand in hand. I could have had some or all of those awful things. Instead it was only trigeminal neuralgia.

My signs and symptoms of abuse are many, among them that I do not like to be touched unexpectedly. I often flinch when it happens. Trigeminal neuralgia can be triggered when something touches the pained area, even something as benign as the slight wisp of a strand of hair.

Circumstantially, one could put those two together; I don't like to be touched and I developed disorder that makes touch horrendously painful.

The negative to that is twofold. I did not know I had the defect, and trigeminal neuralgia in my case has very specific neurosurgical attributes. Although the cause has been theorized, no one is completely sure of what causes trigeminal neuralgiait. In my case though, there is no doubt: dozens and dozens of tiny vessels throughout the affected side of my brain.

I moved to New York City six months before the pain started. I shared a two- room apartment with someone I knew slightly. We never developed chemistry and one day I came home to find a note on the table saying, “I'm going back to Washington.”

I now had the unexpected responsibility of full rent, which I could barely afford. To top it off, I had just been fired. I hated my job but was not aware my employer also knew it until 3 days before Christmas, when he said, without preamble, “You're fired.”

Not surprisingly, I became very depressed. Now, did the depression change my neurochemistry so that the birth defect suddenly became active? I can see that as a possibility. Is there a way to prove it? None of which I am aware.

I think it is too easy to make a connection between two disconnected things, like chronic pain and childhood trauma/abuse, and turn it into an explanation.

Many articles and studies conclude that there is a high prevalence of childhood abuse among those with chronic pain. Often the studies rely on self-reporting, so there is also a question of reliability and constancy as to what constitutes abuse. Too often the authors go on to postulate that there is a connection.

But the presence of one does not mean it causes the other.

Without true studies, such as MRI imaging or other forms of measurement, to compare and contrast the brains of those with chronic pain and childhood abuse histories to those who have chronic pain but suffered no abuse -- we are left with a theory in search of a proof.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.