According to new research, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect, either alone or in combination with other types of childhood trauma, increases the likelihood of chronic pain and accompanying disability in adulthood.
These new findings highlight the need of addressing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are potentially traumatic events that occur before the age of 18, and taking steps to lessen their long-term influence on people’s health.
The study examined research spanning 75 years and includes 826,452 adults. It is revealed in the peer-reviewed journal European Journal of Psychotraumatology that individuals who were exposed to various types of traumatic events as children are at an increased risk of experiencing chronic pain and pain-related disability in adulthood, particularly those who were subjected to physical abuse. The cumulative impact of exposure to multiple ACEs further exacerbates this risk.
“These results are extremely concerning, particularly as over 1 billion children – half of the global child population – are exposed to ACEs each year, putting them at increased risk of chronic pain and disability later in life,” says lead author Dr Andre Bussieres, from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy at McGill University, in Canada.
“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 may affect a child or teenager directly through physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect – or indirectly through exposure to environmental factors like domestic violence, living with substance abuse or parental loss. Chronic pain, affecting between one-third and one-half of the UK population alone, is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Long-term painful conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, headache and migraine, can affect a person’s daily functioning to the point they can’t work, eat properly, or participate in physical activities.
Previous research has indicated a positive relationship between exposure to ACEs and chronic pain in adulthood. However, there are still gaps in knowledge – particularly around which type of ACEs are associated with specific pain-related conditions, or whether a dose-response relationship exists.
“These results underscore the urgency of addressing ACES, particularly in light of their prevalence and health repercussions,” says the senior author Professor Jan Hartvigsen, from the University of Southern Denmark.
“A more nuanced understanding of the precise relationship between ACEs and chronic pain will empower healthcare professionals and policymakers to devise targeted strategies to help diminish the long-term impact of early-life adversity on adult health.”
The authors propose that future research should delve into the biological mechanisms through which ACEs affect health across the lifespan, aiming to deepen understanding and develop ways to mitigate their impact.