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Trauma a Factor in Chronic Pain
New research adds weight to the increasingly recognized theory that trauma is a factor in the development of chronic pain.
By Jennifer Davis
6/13/11 Two new studies add weight to the increasingly recognized theory that trauma is a factor in the development of chronic pain.
The first study, published online in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, found a link between childhood physical abuse and functional somatic syndromes like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivities.
“The majority of people abused won’t develop these syndromes and the major of people with these syndromes won’t have been abused. There’s just a greater likelihood that those abused may have a link to these conditions,” explains lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, Professor & Sandra Rotman Chair in the Faculties of Social Work, Medicine & Nursing at the University of Toronto.
Researchers asked more than 7,000 women from two Canadian provinces if they had experienced physical abuse by someone close to them during their childhood while they were still living at home. Participants were also asked if they’d ever been diagnosed by a health professional with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or other related conditions.
“People who reported they were physically abused also were more likely to report they had these health conditions,” Fuller-Thomson says. Results show that women who reported childhood physical abuse were more than twice as likely to have chronic fatigue syndrome, and 65 percent more likely to have fibromyalgia than women who didn’t report a history of childhood physical abuse.
Researchers aren’t citing a direct cause and they don’t know how to fully explain the association, but they wonder if chronic stress plays a role. “These are things that need to be looked at. Since we don’t know in general what causes these conditions its hard to say. It’s possible that chronic stress makes you more sensitive to pain,” Fuller-Thomson explains. She says while scientists search for answers, she’d like to see proactive work done with abused children to help them with coping strategies and mental health interventions to try and offset problems as they get older.
The second study, published in the March 11 issue of Arthritis Care & Research, found that being in a traffic accident was associated with developing chronic widespread pain.
The researchers looked at a group of more than 2,000 people in the United Kingdom over the course of four years. More than one-third of participants reported experiencing at least one physically traumatic event during the study period. Traumatic events included traffic accidents, work-place injuries, hospitalizations or surgeries and childbirth. Researchers say those who reported being in a traffic accident were more likely to develop chronic widespread pain, although the numbers weren’t statistically significant. Those most prone to developing chronic widespread pain appeared to be people who had poorer health or psychological issues before the accident.
In their paper, the researchers write, “Further research should examine what is peculiar about a (traffic) accident – or about one’s reaction to it – that confers this increase in the risk of chronic widespread pain onset.”
Jennifer Solomon, MD, a physiatrist at Women’s Sport Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City says she’s more impressed with the first study than the second.
“This study provides strong evidence of a relationship between childhood physical abuse and functional somatic syndromes using a representative community-based sample. Future studies need to be performed looking at more objective measures with regards to the type and degree of abuse and the relationship between functional somatic syndromes,” Dr. Solomon says.
Dr. Solomon says, while the findings from the second study are interesting, because the results aren’t statistically significant she doesn’t believe real conclusions can be drawn from the data until more research on the topic is done.
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