Is Chronic Pain a Family Affair?

By Pat Anson, Editor

We can credit – or blame – our parents for many things, including our eye color, hair color, height, weight, personality, even our cravings for certain foods.

And if our parents have chronic pain, we are also more likely to suffer from pain ourselves, according to research recently published in the journal Pain. 

“Offspring of parents with chronic pain are at increased risk for pain and adverse mental and physical health outcomes,” wrote co-authors Amanda Stone of Vanderbilt University and Anna Wilson of Oregon Health & Science University.

"Although the association between chronic pain in parents and offspring has been established, few studies have addressed why or how this relation occurs."

Stone and Wilson developed a “conceptual model” of how chronic pain can be transmitted from parent to child through genes, parenting, stress, and lifestyle choices.

"Such a framework highlights chronic pain as inherently familial and intergenerational, opening up avenues for new models of intervention and prevention that can be family-centered and include at-risk children," they wrote.

The researchers identify five "plausible mechanisms" to explain the transmission of chronic pain from parent to child:

  • Genetics. Children of parents with chronic pain might be at increased genetic risk for sensory as well as psychological components of pain. Research suggests that genetic factors account for about half of the risk of chronic pain in adults.
  • Early Neurobiological Development. Having a parent with chronic pain may affect the functioning of the nervous system during critical periods of child development. For example, a baby's development might be affected by the mother's stress levels or behavior during and after pregnancy.
  • Social Learning. Children may learn "maladaptive pain behaviors" from parents, such as catastrophizing and excessive worrying about pain.
  • Parenting and Health Habits. Chronic pain risk could be affected by parenting behaviors linked to adverse child outcomes--for example, permissive parenting or lack of consistency and warmth. The parents' physical activity level and other health habits might also play a role.
  • Exposure to Stress. There may be adverse effects from growing up in stressful circumstances related to chronic pain -- for example, financial problems or parents' inability to perform daily tasks.

Other factors that may explain why some children are at greater risk include chronic pain in both parents, the location of the parent's pain, and the children's personal temperament.

"The outlined mechanisms, moderators, and vulnerabilities likely interact over time to influence the development of chronic pain and related outcomes," wrote Stone and Wilson, who hope their model will help guide future research toward developing early prevention and treatment approaches for children at risk of chronic pain.

Poor Fitness Leads to Childhood Pain

Another recent study in Finland found that poor physical fitness and sedentary behavior are linked to pain in children as young as 6-8 years of age.

The Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) study at the University of Eastern Finland analyzed the physical fitness, exercise, hobbies, body fat and various pain conditions in 439 children. Physically unfit children suffered from headaches more frequently than others. High amounts of screen time and other sedentary behavior were also associated with increased prevalence of pain conditions.

“Pain experienced in childhood and adolescence often persists later in life. This is why it is important to prevent chronic pain, recognize the related risk factors and address them early on. Physical fitness in childhood and introducing pause exercises to the hobbies of physically passive children could prevent the development of pain conditions,” the study found.