Childhood Trauma and Stress and Fibromyalgia - Is There a Connection?

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Childhood Trauma and Stress and Fibromyalgia - Is There a Connection?

Traumatic experiences and stressors in childhood have historically been overlooked as predisposing factors in the development of various chronic pain disorders and psychiatric conditions, including fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, the tide is turning as research is revealing a significant correlation between childhood trauma and adult health.

 The central nervous system is rapidly developing during childhood and being conditioned to respond to various stimuli and stressors that are encountered in life. As an assortment of environmental stimuli are encountered, new pathways are created between the cells of the brain in response to each stimulus. For example, a pleasurable experience such as a hug from a parent or a sweet food creates pathways that teach the brain to respond pleasurably to those stimuli. Likewise, a frightening experience will create and exercise pathways that respond in fear. This process of creating new pathways in response to stimuli is referred to as neuroplasticity. As we age, neuroplasticity decreases, meaning it is more difficult to develop new pathways and adjust our brain’s responses to stimuli. Children are at a distinct advantage in possessing a high degree of neuroplasticity. However, this also highlights the importance of delivering meaningful stimuli to the developing brain, to ensure the development of positive pathways.

 In the presence of a strong support system and normal, short-lived stressors, a child’s stress responses are appropriately activated and buffered through supportive relationships. In this way, positive pathways are developing in the brain and training the nervous system how to appropriately respond to the normal stressors of life. As the brain encounters various stressors, a healthy resilience is built so that increasingly stressful circumstances are able to be experienced with normal biological responses.

 In the absence of supportive relationships or in the presence of extreme and/or long-standing stressors, the stress response is inappropriately activated and may negatively impact the development of the brain and neurological system. As regions of the brain that are responsible for fear, anxiety and impulsive responses are activated, neural pathways are developed to favor these regions of the brain. Subsequently, regions of the brain that are responsible for reasoning, planning and behavioral control may lack appropriate pathways, leading to a propensity toward negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

 The human stress response elicits a cascade of events that impact the brain, neurological system, and various endocrine glands and hormones, explaining its broad influence over health. The stress response begins with neurons experiencing environmental stressors or stimuli, translating the stimuli into messages, and sending those messages along pathways to various regions of the brain for interpretation and response. During these activities, the production of brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are triggered. Neurotransmitters deliver messages to other regions of the brain and other organs. These chemicals communicate with the adrenal glands (of the endocrine system), which then produce hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). These hormones are responsible for the traditional “fight-and-flight” response to traumatic or dangerous stressors. While these are helpful if we need to dodge a ball or car accident, chronic activation of these hormones can weaken the health of the immune system, the gut, energy systems, and pain perception, contributing to various health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. When the stress response is over activated during childhood, it becomes hypervigilant and has difficulty maintaining balance in adulthood.

 According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the most common traumatic stressors affecting children include, accidents, physical trauma, abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic and community violence. Other impactful stressors include death of a family member, divorce, drug or alcohol abuse, and natural disasters. When encountered during childhood, these traumatic stressors precondition the neurological system and the stress response system to produce exaggerated responses to normal stimuli. Fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome are two examples of hypervigilant neurological responses. Normal stimuli such as wind blowing in the face or clothing rubbing against the skin can produce painful sensations in those with fibromyalgia, illustrating an exaggerated pain response. Normal stressors triggering the neurological system to inappropriately stimulate the muscles of the intestine, leading to alternating constipation and spastic diarrhea, is a classic sign of irritable bowel syndrome. The pain response is also heightened in those with irritable bowel syndrome, causing abdominal pain.

 Currently, specific causes of conditions associated with chronic pain and fatigue, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, are unknown; however, nearly two decades of research has strongly pointed to early childhood stressors as significant risk factors for initiating these conditions. While not every child who has been exposed to traumatic stressors will experience emotional and physical health calamities, research shows that children exposed to traumatic events or long-standing stressors are 2.7 times more likely to experience functional somatic conditions (functionally debilitating conditions for which no distinct cause can be determined), such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome and others. Additionally, these conditions commonly exist with psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression. The age at which trauma or stress is experienced, its duration, and even the type of trauma does not appear to shift this alarming statistic.

 Considering the increasing prevalence of functional somatic conditions, emotional and psychiatric problems, it is important to consider the influence of childhood experiences in the development of these conditions. Dwelling upon past trauma is not always helpful in supporting health and healing, and may actually be counterproductive; however, understanding its influence upon health is helpful in being able to appropriately identify elusive health conditions such as fibromyalgia. It is also important to understand for the purpose of protecting future generations from the debilitating effects of childhood trauma and stressors. Finally, it serves as a good illustration of the success of a functional medicine approach, which relies on a thorough health and lifestyle history to put together the “story” of an individual’s health and gain insight into the root causes of health problems.

 Dr. Brady’s new book, The Fibro Fix, will give you a wealth of information on how to negotiate your way toward getting the proper diagnosis and the proper treatment for your symptoms of widespread pain and fatigue.   The book can be ordered on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other fine book vendors, or at FibroFix.com. Also, learn more about The Fibro Fix Summit where Dr. Brady interviews 30+ experts on FM at FibroFixSummit.com.  

References:

  1. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2005/2014). Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Updated Edition. http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
  2. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2010.) Early Childhood Trauma. Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org/content/scope-problem
  3. Burke, N.N., Finn, D.P., McGuire, B.E., & Roche, M. (2016). Psychological stress in early life as a predisposing factor for the development of chronic pain: Clinical and preclinical evidence and neurobiological mechanisms. Journal of Neuroscience Research. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23802.
  4. Zouikr, I., Bartholomeusz, M. D., & Hodgson, D. M. (2016). Early life programming of pain: focus on neuroimmune to endocrine communication. Journal of Translational Medicine, 14, 123. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-016-0879-8
  5. Afari, N., Ahumada, S. M., Wright, L. J., Mostoufi, S., Golnari, G., Reis, V., & Cuneo, J. G. (2014). Psychological Trauma and Functional Somatic Syndromes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Psychosomatic Medicine, 76(1), 2–11. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000010

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  • David Brady
Comments 19
  • Dr. David Brady
    Dr. David Brady

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and thought and taking the time to write in. This blog really resonated with so many of you. I have found this association, while not absolute, to be a very strong one in the thousands of FM patients I have sen in the past 25 years. Sasey, rape at 18 years of age would certainly qualify as an “Early Life Stressor”. EDen, please read my book, The Fibro Fix and view/listen to the videos, interviews, and PodCasts on the “Media” tab of this website….

    Sincerely,
    Dr. Brady

  • Theresa Harris
    Theresa Harris

    So true. I just read it and living with childhood trauma and in my adult life I ignore it but somehow my body goes through stress every minute in my body and in the end my body and mind gets so tired. Fighting with this fibromalgia in pain is no end

  • ALi
    ALi

    I personally could be swayed that this maybe a precursor, my childhood whilst not tragic was certainly full of abuse and uncertainty…..but, I have three children who sadly also seem to have FIBRO. Whilst they did go through a split family life that certainly was horrid …they were also surrounded by love.

  • MCooks
    MCooks

    Excellent description. I will be forwarding this to several in my family. I appreciate the mention that dwelling on the past can be counterproductive, but very important to take into consideration for the affects that it can have on our physical and emotional functioning in the future. A question: Until what age, approximately, does the neuroplasticity remain fluid? More specifically, if the traumatic situation is addressed, and the appropriate affection is continually given, from a still early age, such as 6 or 13, can the brain be “rewired” once again to be healthier? (I am currently reading your book, so if you have a page number reference I’d be happy to read about it.). Thanks again for being such a good educator and making a complicated and emotionally charged subject easier to understand and explain!

  • NO wonder I hAve fIbro!
    NO wonder I hAve fIbro!

    If you need a "Poster person " for fibromyalgia, email me!

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    WANDA ANDREWS

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  • Joan
    Joan

    It seems as though I started out with trauma, my parents took my brothers room & gave it to me when I was born & made his bedroom in the furnace room. My brother always hated me & I never knew why for a long time… But in my life has been many traumas from everything being my fault,drugs,sexual abuse, physical abuse,car accidents,had a 47 Chevy the rear end fall on my back,lived on the street for years…then at 28 God stepped in and grabbed me & gave me his love! 34 yrs later,yes I have fibro, but I also have the love of my life for 34 years God,& my husband,6 kids,23 grandchildren,& 9 great grands !
    I’d like to know more about how the trauma effects the fibro,& is there anything more I can do to help myself?

  • DC
    DC

    Thanks for writing this but I would say as a survivor of abuse and someone who works with inner-city families where abuse is an epidemic, its not so easy to stop dwelling. People don’t want to be in internal emotional pain, but it can’t be ignored and the fact is, there is not enough psychological help for the need. People need to process what happened – but need “safe people” to do it with, Many don’t open up to the psychological community because there is the relational disconnect that is a number one priority of the poor. I work in a church environment where our church is more like an AA meeting than a typical church service. Just beginning to learn that we can say “NO!” is a start to healing. I’m concerned for what is going to be coming down the road. If its not fibro (which I’m dealing with), its diabetes and the other host of auto immune and heart related issues that are taxing our American health system. I have a couple who were severely abused when they were young with a host of mental health and physical issues. They are both in and out of the hospital on an every other week basis. How can we afford this as a nation? But, the out of pocket costs for mental health care is just impossible for most lower and middle class people. I know I can’t afford it. I’m learning about the Healing Timeline – Cathy Thorpe and Peggy Pace to help the younger self catch up to the older self helping the younger self to understand that they got through the trauma and they’re okay. I hope this helps. Maybe it will help another reader.

  • Kristin Stone
    Kristin Stone

    I really want to Thank you for your article. This explains so much in a manor that I could understand. I went through childhood trauma and extreme physical and mental abuse from my mother. It has been a lifelong battle repairing that issue. I have Fibromyalgia, IBS and chronic pain. I also have spinal issues. I suffer from depression and anxiety too. This article gives me hope in my positive advancement towards managing healing and repairing my mind and body. I also like that you pointed out that dwelling isn’t good . I agree. Thank you again!

  • Sharon RIchert
    Sharon RIchert

    Thank you, Dr. Brady, for you research and writing. I have fibromyalgia and worried that my daughter might inherit it, but her birth and life and circumstances are as conducive to excellent health as I could possibly have hoped. I will rest a little easier having read just a little of your hypothesis about the cause of fibromyalgia. I will be reading your “Fibro-fix” as soon as I lay my hands on it!

  • Sharon RIchert
    Sharon RIchert

    Thank you, Dr. Brady, for you research and writing. I have fibromyalgia and worried that my daughter might inherit it, but her birth and life and circumstances are as conducive to excellent health as I could possibly have hoped. I will rest a little easier having read just a little of your hypothesis about the cause of fibromyalgia. I will be reading your “Fibro-fix” as soon as I lay my hands on it!

  • Lupi
    Lupi

    As a child and teen I experienced every kind of abuse in the book by my father…I also had 3 traumatic (apendicitis, typhoid fever, and rhyumatic heart fever) illnesses…I also lost my brother and grandfather when I was 15…my grandfather was my male role model and the person who loved me unconditionallly…the loss of these two people were devistating…so, I believe all of that contributed to my anxiety, depression, digestive issues, and fibromyalgia…thanks for bring light to this topic…look forward to more info

  • SReynolds
    SReynolds

    Thank you for writing about this in this way. When I have heard fibromyalgia linked to childhood trauma in the past, it always sounded like another version of “It’s all in your head” because the physical basis was not explained. It was said as if the fibromyalgia was a psychological symptom rather than physiological process. This explanation makes it easier for me to accept the link.

  • Wendy Bradley
    Wendy Bradley

    Thank you for writing about this. It’s becoming more clear. I went to a pain specialist once and one of his questions was . Were you sexually abused as a child?

  • Sasey
    Sasey

    I’d be very interested as to what the definition of child is. Would an emotional trauma such as rape at 18 fit into this period?

  • Jessica Malionek
    Jessica Malionek

    “How fabulous are you for writing about this stuff!?! These are the things I address in my own work and writing without all of the supportive medical pieces you incorporate.
    My favorite is your last paragraph — dwelling isn’t useful or helpful — Well done! And thank you for being a voice out there — discussing and addressing issues people don’t like to talk about.”
    Jessica Malionek, Clinical Psychologist

  • ESignor
    ESignor

    I totally agree with the theory that childhood trauma can be one contributing cause of fibromyalgia . My father was abusive to both my mother and my siblings. I lived in a state of anxiety because we never knew how my father would behave each day. Each occurrence would cause me to shake uncontrollably. Never knew that this anxiety could play a role in the formation of the central nervous system. Thank you for your research.

  • Aimee
    Aimee

    Thank you. This is the most easily understood description of this association I have heard or read. It makes total sense.

  • EDen
    EDen

    Wow, I definetly relate to the situation with my son who is 15 and I would like to know what I can do to help my son who is suffering from chronic pain

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