The Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma: Understanding the Connection to Chronic Pain

Childhood trauma can have a lasting impact on an individual’s physical and mental well-being. When we talk about trauma, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a terrible event happened. Trauma can be repeated feelings of neglect or criticism, for instance. While an array of symptoms may come up later in life because of early trauma, let’s look specifically at the link between trauma and chronic pain.

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for longer than three months and can range from mild to severe. It often interferes with a person’s daily activities and quality of life.

When we consider all the causes of chronic pain, it’s important to look at trauma history as a contributing factor. And while childhood trauma is not the only cause, we are learning that it can make you vulnerable to developing chronic pain later in life. And people with chronic pain tend to report higher rates of trauma in their past. Research has shown that childhood trauma can increase the risk of developing chronic pain later in life.

Difficult experiences in childhood can alter the development of the nervous system, leading to chronic pain and affecting the body’s stress response system. When a person experiences trauma, their body activates the stress response, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate and tensed muscles, to prepare the body to fight or flee.

How Does Trauma Impact You?

In chronic pain patients, the stress response system remains activated, leading to a constant state of tension in the muscles and other areas of the body. This heightened stress and muscle tension can cause pain, which can then perpetuate the stress response and lead to a vicious cycle of chronic pain. For example:

  1. When we experience something threatening, we respond by going into the stress response or fight-or-flight.
  2. If a kid is experiencing chronic stress, then this response is likely activated for long periods of time.
  3. Many children who experience chronic stress may not have positive support in the home to help them manage this and shift into a state of calm.
  4. As a result, the brain begins to operate in a persistent state of stress and this can have long-lasting impacts on how the brain sees and interprets the world.
  5. This, in turn, can lead to physical and mental health symptoms.

Moreover, childhood trauma can also affect the way that pain is perceived and processed in the brain. The brain of a person who has experienced childhood trauma may become sensitized to pain signals, leading to an increased perception of pain.

How Pain Develops

Pain is a warning sign that the body is experiencing an overload of stress, tension, and fear. When we go through something traumatic, some people can shift out of the stress response and go back to their life. For others, however, the brain begins to exist in a persistent state of alarm. This means that breath is shallower, muscles are tighter, and we may be holding or clenching in places to prepare for danger. It follows that pain will come on if we live in this state.

Once the pain starts, pain becomes chronic when we begin to feel anxious, frustrated, or distressed about having the pain. The pain-fear cycle starts to repeat, and we have conditioned responses for the pain, which can make the pain worse.

How to Heal

Research shows that there are multiple ways to treat chronic pain and eliminate the pain-fear cycle without medicine.

Here are a few examples:

  • PRT works by teaching individuals how to interpret pain signals without fear or frustration, thus breaking the cycle of pain. PRT is an alternative treatment that focuses on thoughts and behaviors around pain.
  • EMDR uses eye movements or tapping on either side of the body. The back-and-forth movement (also known as bilateral stimulation) allows your brain to work through trapped emotions and memories that you may not be able to access otherwise.
  • CBT is a type of psychotherapy that aims to improve mental health by changing negative patterns of thinking and behavior.

In conclusion, childhood trauma can lead to chronic pain in many ways, including altering the development of the nervous system, affecting the body’s stress response system, and changing the way that pain is perceived and processed in the brain. If you or someone you know is struggling with chronic pain, it is important to seek help from a healthcare professional who understands chronic pain.

For more information about chronic pain therapy, check out our PRT page or contact us for a free consultation.


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