Published January 2020 | Pain

Adults who experience pain differently—more frequently, intensely, and widespread—have reported higher frequencies of abuse during childhood.

Although specialists and treatment providers have observed these associations for some time, research to explore associations between maltreatment as a child and adult experiences with pain have shown unclear results. Studies have tended to focus on adults who already suffer from pain, relying on self-reports of childhood experiences many years later.

Researchers in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology took a unique approach—beginning a study with adolescents and following them into adulthood. The team recruited 477 girls between the ages of 14 to 17 and checked in with them annually until age 19. About half of the participants had a documented history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Five years later, researchers were able to contact 383 of the participants and ask about their pain experiences. Compared with women who had not experienced childhood maltreatment, those who had reported more pain intensity, more locations of pain, and more likelihood of experiencing pain in the previous week.

“We were able to examine the mechanisms that might explain why some women are experiencing pain and others are not—in this case, elevated post-traumatic stress symptoms,” says lead author Sarah Beal, PhD.

The team, including co-authors Susmita Kashikar-Zuck, PhD, and Christopher King, PhD, is preparing a follow-up study to better understand cognitive function, pain processing, and other health behaviors in the same cohort of women.

“Our hope is that with better understanding of the processes linking maltreatment to pain and other health outcomes, we can identify opportunities for early intervention to help women who experience maltreatment to lead healthier and more productive lives in adulthood,” says Beal.

Models Linking Maltreatment and Pain