Emotional Abuse as a Child Linked to Adult Chronic Pain

It’s no secret that childhood childhood abuse can have a lasting impact on a person’s well-being. A growing body of research, however, has revealed an even more concerning relationship – the link between emotional abuse in childhood and extended physical issues and chronic pain later in life.

A study conducted by researchers at Erasmus MC University Medical Centre Rotterdam found that those who had experienced any type of child abuse were more likely to suffer chronic pain as adults than those who had not been abused. While this does not imply causation, it does suggest that there may be a correlation between emotional trauma and chronic pain conditions later in life.

This finding was echoed by another study conducted at Colorado State University, which examined the records of nearly 1,400 individuals with chronic pain disorders. Participants were asked to recall experiences of emotional maltreatment they’d endured during their childhoods. The results showed that emotional trauma during formative years was associated with an increased risk of various disorders such as fibromyalgia, tension headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and chronic widespread pain.

The same study also found that being emotionally abused as a child also correlated to higher rates of depression and anxiety in adulthood, two issues often experienced in tandem with chronic pain problems. These findings underscore the importance of early recognition and prevention when it comes to both physical and mental health issues stemming from emotional abuse.

“From a public health perspective . . . prevention programs should target multiple types of maltreatment within the family.”

Carol Murtaugh

Nobody should have to endure any kind of psychological trauma while growing up. Unfortunately, however, it still occurs all too often. Being aware of the potential risks in adulthood is key to aiding individuals who’ve experienced such heart-breaking situations find healing in order begin living happier healthier lives free from continuing physical suffering caused by their formative years.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a condition that persists over a long period of time, typically lasting more than 3 months. The cause of chronic pain can be difficult to determine and varies from person to person. It can be the result of an underlying medical condition, an injury, or even emotional trauma. It can range from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating pain which affects daily activities.

Common chronic pain conditions include arthritis and fibromyalgia, but there are many other types as well. Headaches, neck pain, lower back pain, nerve damage such as sciatica, and musculoskeletal problems like tendinitis are all examples of chronic pain conditions. Symptoms can vary greatly but usually include aches and pains in joints and muscles, stiffness, fatigue and tenderness in certain areas.

The effects of chronic pain can go beyond physical symptoms however – it’s also been linked to psychological issues such as depression or anxiety. This isn’t surprising considering the impact that unrelenting physical and mental pressure has on one’s wellbeing. Having to cope with consistent discomfort for long periods can often lead to feelings of helplessness or frustration which eventually manifest themselves psychologically.

At its worst chronic pain can become disabling – preventing someone from being able to do everyday tasks like going shopping or working and thereby furthering the sense of hopelessness associated with such ailments.

Fortunately though there are treatment options available suited to almost any type of chronic pain condition. These can range from lifestyle changes such as exercise or stress reduction techniques to medications and therapies aimed at mitigating symptoms and increasing mobility levels.

Trauma and Mental Health lead to Chronic Pain

According to Talley et al., (1998) childhood trauma increases the risk of individuals developing neuroticism and depression, both of which result in physical complaints mediated by the mind-body connection (i.e. the mind’s ability to affect the body).

Emotional abuse in childhood is also linked to muscular tension and hyperventilation, both of which may result in muscle pain. Another very common result of childhood trauma is hypervigilance and catastrophizing, which leads to paranoia about internal physical stimuli, which in turn may alter the way pain is processed.

Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to changes in the brain’s limbic system, which is involved with the processing of pain. Childhood trauma impairs the connectivity of the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system, making the limbic system harder to regulate. The hippocampus is reduced in volume, reducing its plasticity and impacting neurogenesis. Both of these conditions have been linked to physical ailments.

Lifestyle Changes to Help Manage Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be unmanageable. There are a number of lifestyle changes that can help you manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Here is a list of some of the most effective ones:

  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise strengthens muscles, increases flexibility and stimulates joint cartilage, all of which helps to reduce pain. It also boosts endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller. Try low impact exercises such as swimming or yoga for maximum benefit.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of rest leads to increased muscle tension and fatigue, both of which will amplify any existing pains. Aim for 8 hours per night. If necessary try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation before bedtime to help you relax and drift off more easily.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Eating healthy foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can boost your overall wellbeing including helping with chronic pain relief. Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables and fish into your meals. These are especially beneficial for reducing inflammation associated with many chronic conditions.
  • Hydrate. Staying hydrated helps to keep inflammation down while flushing out toxins from the body. It also helps lubricate joints so aim for around 6-8 glasses per day depending on your activity level and environment.
  • Find hobbies. Make time each week to do the things that you enjoy such as painting or gardening. These activities distract the mind from the physical discomfort whilst providing an outlet for stress relief.
  • Be mindful. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to stay present in the moment rather than constantly worrying about future aches and pains. It helps you control negative thoughts about your condition instead of letting them take over by practicing daily meditations or guided visualisations.

The Takeaway

If you experienced emotional abuse as a child, it’s important to be aware of the link to chronic pain in adulthood.

Chronic pain is the result of health conditions that can significantly reduce quality of life. If you are struggling with any such ailments, please seek professional help. There is no shame in seeking help; in fact, it takes courage and strength to do so. You deserve to live a happy and pain-free life.

A therapist can help you understand the connection between your childhood experiences and your current pain. They can also provide coping and treatment strategies.

If you’re a parent, be mindful of the way you speak to and treat your children. Emotional abuse can have a lasting impact on their mental and physical health. Seek help if you find yourself struggling to control your anger or verbal abuse.

Sharing is caring!

4 thoughts on “Emotional Abuse as a Child Linked to Adult Chronic Pain”

  1. I’d really like to see the reference/s for this linking of childhood emotional abuse to adult chronic pain if you still have them to hand. Is one of them the Talley et al? If so, might you share the full reference? Thank you 🙂

    • Hi Richard, thanks for reading my post 🙂
      The Talley et al paper relates to a study in Australia, looking into the link between IBS and abuse. You can access the paper here – https://gut.bmj.com/content/gutjnl/42/1/47.full.pdf
      They found that “abuse was associated with neuroticism and psychological morbidity.” In other words the impact of abuse leads a person to have extreme mental and physical reactions throughout their life due to triggers, which lead to several health issues.
      Hope you find it useful.


Leave a comment