Childhood Trauma Linked to Adult Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you experienced physical or emotional trauma as a child – like a major illness, abuse or your parents’ divorce – you are more likely to experience pain as an adult, according to researchers at Penn State.

Their findings -- published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine – add to previous research suggesting there’s a link between adult physical pain and childhood trauma or adversity.

"Pain is the number one reason people seek health care in the United States," said co-author Jennifer Graham-Engeland, PhD, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “We need more insight into pain and the phenomenon that can make pain both better or worse."

The researchers surveyed a diverse group of 265 adults who lived in a housing cooperative in the Bronx, New York.  All reported at least one form of trauma or adversity as children or adolescents. Some reported as many as seven.

A traumatizing event that left a person scared for years was the most common adversity (44%), followed by parental divorce (31%), a major illness or accident requiring hospitalization (24%), parental substance abuse (24%), sexual abuse (23%), parental unemployment (21%), a child’s removal from the home (10%) and physical abuse (10%).


Participants were also asked about their current mood, sleep patterns, optimism, how in control of their lives they felt, and if they recently felt pain.

Those who experienced more adversity or trauma as children were more likely to have mood or sleep problems as adults -- which in turn made them more likely to have physical pain. But the connection to pain was weaker in those who felt more optimistic and resilient.

"The participants who felt more optimistic or in control of their lives may have been better at waking up with pain but somehow managing not to let it ruin their day," said Ambika Mathur, a graduate student in biobehavioral health. "They may be feeling the same amount or intensity of pain, but they've taken control of and are optimistic about not letting the pain interfere with their day. They're still performing their work or daily activities while doing their best to ignore the pain."

The researchers found that childhood or adolescent adversity was strongly associated with more physical pain in adulthood, which could be partially explained by feelings of anger, depression or anxiety -- as well as poor sleep.

"Basically what's happening is mood and sleep disturbances are explaining the link between early life adversity and pain in adulthood," Mathur said. "The findings suggest that early life trauma is leading to adults having more problems with mood and sleep, which in turn lead to them feeling more pain and feeling like pain is interfering with their day."

The researchers also found that people who felt more optimistic or resilient didn't have as strong of a connection between trouble sleeping and pain interfering with their day. This suggests that childhood adversity can be overcome and doesn't necessarily sentence anyone to a lifetime of pain.

"This study does build on a body of research showing a connection between early life adversity and pain, but also that some people can achieve resilience," said Graham-Engeland. “Some people can be relatively resilient to adverse effects in the longer term, while others have a harder time."

Recent studies have also linked childhood trauma to adult migraine and fibromyalgia.

Major Depression Increasing

Pain sufferers aren't the only ones dealing with anxiety or depression. According to a new report from Blue Cross Blue Shield, major depression affects more than 9 million Americans who are commercially insured.

Diagnoses of major depression have risen by 33 percent since 2013. The rate is rising even faster in millennials (up 47%) and adolescents (47% for boys and 65% for girls).

In most cases, major depression coincides with a chronic or behavioral health condition. People diagnosed with depression are three times more likely to suffer from pain related disorders and injuries, and seven times more likely to have a substance use disorder.

It's worth noting that a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that medications used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are now involved in more overdoses than opioid pain medication.

Over 25,000 overdoses in 2016 were linked to "psychotherapeutic" medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, barbiturates and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) drugs such as Adderall. Deaths linked to psychotherapeutic drugs have risen by 45 percent since 2010.

Over 17,000 Americans died in 2016 from overdoses involving prescription opioids.