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Painful past in childhood may lead to chronic pain in adulthood

Tracy Woolrich's picture
chronic pain in children

Research now shows that painful experiences in childhood can translate into chronic pain in adulthood. These findings were published this month in The Journal of Pain which is a publication of the American Pain Society. This could be instrumental in treating emotional and physical pain in childhood in a way that could help prevent long lasting effects.

This research does not surprise me. During my work with chronic pain and fibromyalgia patients in 2004-2008, I found that the vast majority of the patients I worked with were female and were injured in some way as a child or an adolescent. There were a lot of post traumatic stress disorders, chronic depression and anxiety. My patients would tell me how they felt medically disenfranchised and looked down upon by the medical system. If they did not respond to the prescribed drug treatment regimen they often get tagged as malingerers or addicts. How sad it was to have something as subjective as pain be judged so harshly. Pain cannot be measured with a lab test or x-ray. It is through the subjective description of the results by the patient that therapy is adjusted.

Fibromyalgia, muscle pain and fatigue, is recognized as a distinct disease by arthritis doctors and the American College of Rheumatology. Yet many doctors view the same symptoms as signs of depression and still consider it a psychological condition. I am of the thought that it is in reality a complex condition that affects the mind, body and spirit of the person who experiences it. It is all encompassing and debilitating for the individual who suffers from it.

This latest study is out of the University of Michigan. It found that one in six adult chronic pain patients also had pain as children or adolescents. Their pain was neuropathic in nature and coexisted with psychological effects as well.

During this research of 1,000 participants, they were evaluated in depth in regards to any physical or emotional abuse they sustained as a child. The outcomes indicated that those that had issues with pain in childhood were at greater risk at developing chronic pain, fibromyalgia and anxiety as an adult.

This coincides with the results of an earlier study out of Birmingham, Alabama which suggested that patients with fibromyalgia were more likely to have had a history of sexual or physical abuse. This was published by the American College of Rheumatology in its journal. In that study over 65% of female fibromyalgia patients reported suffering sexual abuse in comparison to 50% of the control group. Another study published in that same journal found that 37% of the patients that suffered from fibromyalgia had been sexually abused as a child in comparison to 22% of the control participants who suffered from other rheumatologic diseases. The results of that study however fell flat as it was thought to not have a wide enough sampling despite the obvious connection between a painful childhood history and the development of fibromyalgia.

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According to Dr. Edgard Janer, who is rheumatologist in the Tampa Bay Florida area, the cause of Fibromyalgia is still not known. “What we do know is that it can be effectively treated using a multidisciplinary approach consisting of medications, counseling, exercise and improving sleep quality.”

He continued and said “Studies document the fact that patients who have fibromyalgia are more likely to have minor psychiatric disorders than patients who do not have fibromyalgia. This does not mean that patients' symptoms are "all in their head.'' It does mean that including a mental health professional in the treatment team helps achieve optimum success.”

Mental and Emotional Health
Counseling is strongly advised for those with fibromyalgia patients. Not only do old hurts need to be addressed but current stressors need to evaluated and dealt with. There needs to be a health balance established between relaxation and activity. A slower healthy rhythm needs to be nurtured. Boundary setting is essential and learning to say no has to be learned.

There is a tremendous amount of stigma that still exists. Not believing that the afflicted person is in pain can add to their stress and worsen the condition. Because there are no outward physical signs it can appear as though “it’s all in their head”. Empower yourself with the necessary educational information and make it your goal to educate those around you. This is true even with your own medical team. Follow the current research and be part of the movement towards removing the negative connotation that is associated with the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia.

Support Groups
Join a local fibromyalgia support group. You can find a local fibromyalgia support group through the Fibromyalgia Network.

American Pain Society

Arthritis and Rheumatism, 38:229-234