Several research studies indicate the relationship between childhood suffering and adult chronic pain. In fact, one study revealed that 73% of women with chronic pain also have experienced some childhood trauma (www.instituteforchronicpain.org/…/complications/trauma). Woah!! – for those suffering from chronic pain, this likely draws your back hairs to stand straight up, shuddering at the notion that the pain “is not real. Most of us have recognized that depression and anxiety are oftentimes results of chronic pain, or that pain is worsened when experiencing depression or anxiety based on a person’s thoughts about the pain. However, to consider childhood trauma as an instigator for adult chronic pain is far-fetched for many that are suffering.
Truly, most of us know that much of chronic pain is due to a diagnosable anatomical cause, such as degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis, or the result of physical trauma or accident, or genetic anomalies, or hereditary factors, and the list goes on. However, diagnosticians note that more and more often, chronic pain has no clear anatomical cause or identified pain generator, as in tailed back surgery syndrome or chronic back pain. In such cases, specialists identify the pain is in itself to be the disease. However, this is not to say that there aren’t biological impacts of childhood adversity.
When we are threatened, our bodies have what is called a stress response, which prepares our bodies to fight or flee. However, when this response remains highly activated in a child for an extended period of time without the calming influence of a supportive parent or adult figure, toxic stress occurs and can damage crucial neural connections in the developing brain. Scientists also report that DNA is stored in every cell of the body and transferred from generation to generation. As mental and emotional levels are also stored by the cells, emotional imprints are left on the cellular memory by the traumatic incidents from the past. Although every experience is not remembered by the conscious mind, the cells encode the memory of every experience.
Past negative experiences, personal beliefs and unresolved emotions create emotional blockages, suppressing and bottling up inside the person experiencing them. These emotional blockages perform as a defense mechanism in deep emotional pain produced during these traumatic or dysfunctional situations, resulting in physical manifestations like chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
Specifically, it appears that children who have experienced one or more of the following 10 ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) descriptors, are much more likely to develop chronic pain as an adult. These descriptors include: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, mental illness of a household member, problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member, illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member, divorce or separation of a parent, domestic violence towards a parent, incarceration of a household member, and death of an immediate family member. The higher the score, the more chances these children will eventually have to deal with adult chronic pain.
The good news is that psychological care for those with a history of childhood trauma may help tame their overactive stress response, and in turn provide some complementary health benefits for those also dealing with physiological diseases. As there is more and more concern about those addictive tendencies with pain medications, it is interesting to consider that possibly pain medications may be a band-aid for many. Maybe, a primary consideration for treatment is dealing with the root of the problem, working through the suffering of emotional pain as a child as well as an adult already dealing with chronic pain.
Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW
St. Williams Mental Health