Childhood trauma and chronic pain are linked, concerning study finds

Science and Health

New research underscores the profound impact of childhood trauma on adult health, revealing that physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, along with neglect during childhood, increases the risk of chronic pain and related disability in adulthood. 

The study, published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, draws on 75 years of research involving 826,452 adults, emphasizing the urgent need to address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and implement interventions to mitigate their long-term health consequences.

The findings reveal that individuals exposed to various forms of childhood trauma face an elevated risk of experiencing chronic pain and pain-related disability in adulthood, with physical abuse showing a particularly strong association.

The cumulative impact of exposure to multiple ACEs further heightens this risk, painting a concerning picture for the over 1 billion children—half of the global child population—exposed to ACEs annually.

Lead author Dr. André Bussières from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy at McGill University in Canada emphasizes the urgency, stating, “There is an urgent need to develop targeted interventions and support systems to break the cycle of adversity and improve long-term health outcomes for those individuals who have been exposed to childhood trauma.”

ACEs, encompassing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or exposure to environmental factors like domestic violence or parental loss, have a lasting impact on individuals.


Longterm impact of chronic pain

Chronic pain, affecting a significant portion of the global population, is a leading cause of disability. Long-term painful conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, headache, and migraine can impair daily functioning and quality of life.


While previous research indicated a positive relationship between ACEs and chronic pain in adulthood, gaps remained in understanding specific associations with pain-related conditions and whether a dose-response relationship exists.

The systematic review, comprising 85 studies and meta-analyses of 57 studies, offers comprehensive insights:

1. Individuals exposed to direct ACEs were 45% more likely to report chronic pain in adulthood compared to those not exposed.

2. Childhood physical abuse was linked to a higher likelihood of reporting both chronic pain and pain-related disability.

3. The odds of reporting chronic pain or pain-related disability increased with exposure to any direct ACE, alone or combined with indirect ACEs.

4. The risk of reporting chronic pain significantly rose with exposure to one ACE, reaching a notable increase with four or more ACEs.

Senior author Professor Jan Hartvigsen from the University of Southern Denmark emphasizes the urgent need to address ACEs, given their prevalence and health repercussions.

He notes that a nuanced understanding of the relationship between ACEs and chronic pain will empower healthcare professionals and policymakers to devise targeted strategies to mitigate the enduring impact of early-life adversity on adult health.

The authors advocate for future research to delve into the biological mechanisms through which ACEs affect health across the lifespan, aiming to deepen understanding and develop effective ways to mitigate their impact.