Childhood Stress Linked with Enhanced Pain Sensitivity in Adults

Stress in the womb and during early childhood may have a long-lasting effect on future adults – it alters pain perception. Read on to see how and why.

Sensitivity to pain was measured amongst 1,065 volunteers with low-level and prolonged exposure to stress during the first years of life. The effort paid off by revealing that previous stress factors boost vulnerability to pain. What type of events can have such a substantial impact on someone?

According to scientists, some of the household issues may exert a profound influence, such as pregnancy complications, the death of a parent, relative or friend, divorce, financial problems, residential moves, parental job loss, and others. At first glance, they may seem regular life events, but a child or a developing baby may perceive them at an entirely different level.

What Stress Does to Body’s Natural Defence?

Rob Waller, lead author of the study and a researcher at Curtin University in Perth, Australia states:

Significant life stress is known to result in changes to the body’s biological systems partially by modifying gene expression.

Waller adds in the email that stress factors are able to engage genes responsible for inflammation and turn off genes that are set to control infections. This discovery explains why stress can induce inflammatory-related diseases like diabetes and some types of cancers.

The hypothesis states that when the body is in a pro-inflammatory state, it “can prime the nervous system,” resulting in more powerful pain perception. The study recorded the reaction to pressure and low temperatures.

The Effects of Toxic Stress

Difficult childhood behaviours at age two were correlated with increased vulnerability to pressure pain at 22.

A range of family issues are able to provoke higher responsiveness to cold temperatures at 22, contrasting with participants that experienced little to no stress.

The study could not provide an extensive look at other pain factors, like injuries or surgeries, or a causal effect. More tests are required on this matter. However, the study gave a possible clue that unlocks the source of severe pains interfering with daily life for some adults. In this case, they may consider therapies to overcome early child stressors, and put in practice pain management strategies, like mindfulness, good sleep and socialising.

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