The study, “The association between exposure to childhood maltreatment and the subsequent development of functional somatic and visceral pain syndromes,” was published in the journal EClinicalMedicine.
Being mistreated as a child can have long-lasting effects at every level. A growing body of evidence has suggested that childhood mistreatment also may make people more likely to develop CSSs.
CSS is an umbrella term for conditions characterized by nervous system sensitization, which refers to a persistent state of high reactivity associated with chronic pain. In addition to fibromyalgia, other CSSs are chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic headache, restless leg syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham used data from The Health Improvement Network database (THIN) to identify 80,657 adults living in the U.K. who had experienced childhood mistreatment, defined as any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. Since such mistreatment often is under-reported, instances of suspected or possible childhood mistreatment were included alongside confirmed instances.
For each individual, the researchers identified two people (totaling 161,314 individuals) in THIN who had no indication of childhood mistreatment, but were matched for age and sex (controls). Both groups had about 42% of males, mean age at enrollment in THIN was 23, and median follow-up time was 2.2 years.
Compared to controls, the childhood mistreatment group had significantly lower socio-economic status and more mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Notably, data on smoking, drinking status and body mass index were not available for nearly half of participants.
Using data from both groups, the researchers constructed statistical models to calculate the relative likelihood of developing various CSSs.
Childhood mistreatment was associated with a 2.06 times higher risk of developing fibromyalgia. It also was associated with a 1.47 times higher risk of chronic fatigue syndrome, a 1.99 times greater risk of chronic lower back pain, a 1.82 times higher likelihood of restless leg syndrome, and a 1.15 times greater susceptibility to irritable bowel syndrome.
Statistical adjustments for other factors — including age, sex, socio-economic status, and mental health — did not substantially alter these findings, “suggesting the association may not be driven mainly by the role of mental ill health and demographic factors,” the researchers wrote.
Similar results also were found in an analysis that included only confirmed cases of childhood mistreatment. When dividing participants in four age groups according to when they were exposed to childhood maltreatment, the team found that the higher risk of developing fibromyalgia was significant from birth to age 15, but not at ages 16 or 17.
“Our study showed increased risk of many types of CSS following exposure to childhood maltreatment,” the scientists concluded. “Primary prevention approaches targeting childhood maltreatment as well as secondary preventative approaches should be considered to minimise the associated burden of CSS.”
The investigators noted that more studies are needed to fully understand the relationship between childhood mistreatment and CSSs.