How Past Abuse Affects Pain Today

3 min read
Ann in the UK/shutterstock

Source: Ann in the UK/shutterstock

Childhood abuse can play a significant role in the development of pain syndromes later in life. Widespread body pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, and chronic pelvic pain are some of the common conditions that can arise as a result of this trauma. And the risk of developing pain syndromes increases with the severity of abuse.

Abuse Has Lifelong Impacts

Olivia came to see me when she was 20 years old, suffering from the misery of chronic and severe bladder pain. She had been diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a bladder pain condition characterized by urinary urgency and frequency, and pelvic pain. If you’ve ever had a bladder infection, you can appreciate the intense discomfort. Imagine if your bladder infection pain never went away; that is what living with interstitial cystitis feels like.

Olivia endured bladder pain on a daily basis. During high-stress times, the pain spiked to an excruciating level, driving her to the emergency room for relief. Olivia had seen multiple gynecologists, but none of their prescribed interventions had helped. She was trying to get through college but kept experiencing horrible pain episodes that would make her miss days of school or exams. She had never been pregnant or had surgery, so it was unusual for such a young woman to have severe pelvic pain. That was a clear sign there was more to her story.

Abuse-Pain Connection

Chronic bladder pain, like Olivia’s, is often associated with a history of abuse. A study by Peters and colleagues found that 49 percent of women with interstitial cystitis reported a history of abuse. Of those, 92 percent reported emotional abuse, 78 percent reported physical abuse, and 68 percent reported sexual abuse. Those numbers represent a much higher prevalence of abuse than is reported in the general population.

Further discussion with Olivia uncovered that she had been sexually abused by a family member from age 8 until age 11. We spent the next hour discussing the relationship between her symptoms and her early life trauma.

I explained to Olivia that abuse acts as a trigger, an injury, that puts in motion the physical changes that lead to nerve sensitization and pain conditions. The physical trauma causes inflammation in the abused area. The psychological stress induces low-level inflammation in the body. This inflammation affects the nerves leading to neuroinflammation, which sensitizes nerves, increasing the risk of developing a pain condition. I expand on this in my book, Sunbreak: Healing the Pain No One Can Explain.

Studies Agree

A number of studies support that abuse is significantly associated with the development of pain conditions. Childhood abuse impacts how the body works and how it responds to future threats. A young body is developing. Some changes are evident, while others grow quietly. Abuse and trauma impact a child’s developing nervous system, sensitizing nerves and increasing the risk for future pain syndromes.

The impact of abuse lasts long after it has ended. Severe trauma changes the nervous system, increasing the risk of pain conditions. Survivors are forever changed, both emotionally and physically.

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