Young Women Abused as Children Have More Pain  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Young adult women with a history of being physically or emotionally abused as children report higher levels of pain than women not abused in childhood, according to a new study.

The link between child abuse and chronic pain in adulthood is a controversial one, but there are a number of studies that have found an association between the two. This was one of the first to follow abused adolescents into adulthood.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center recruited 477 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 and followed them up to age 19. About half the girls experienced neglect or maltreatment, such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse that was substantiated by child welfare records. The other half acted as a control group.

Five years later, researchers contacted the women again and surveyed them about their pain as young adults. Those who were maltreated as children reported higher pain intensity, a greater number of pain locations, and were more likely to have experienced pain in the previous week than those who were not mistreated as children.

The young women who experienced post-traumatic stress as teenagers had the highest risk of pain.

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"Child maltreatment and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) in adolescence work together to increase risk of pain in young adulthood," says lead author Sarah Beal, PhD, a developmental psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "The link isn't simple and could be due to an increase in inflammation, maintaining a state of high-alert in activating stress responses, or a number of other psychological or behavioral mechanisms.

“Women with a child maltreatment history were significantly more likely to experience pain and report a higher number of pain locations in young adulthood. Furthermore, among women who experienced any pain, those who were maltreated reported somewhat higher pain intensity. Results also showed that elevated PTSS during adolescence were associated with pain in adulthood and more widespread pain.”

Beal, who reported her findings in the journal Pain, says identifying and treating childhood trauma at an early age could help prevent chronic pain from developing in adulthood.  

“By intervening to address stress symptoms and poor coping following maltreatment, we may be able to reduce the impact of maltreatment on young adult health sequelae -- at least for pain,” said Beal.

Previous research has found an association between childhood trauma and chronic illness in adults.

A recent study found that women who experienced physical or emotional abuse as children have a significantly higher risk of developing lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease.

Another study found that adults who experienced 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.

And a large survey found that nearly two-thirds of adults who suffer from migraines experienced emotional abuse as children.