Is fibromyalgia related to childhood trauma?


Traumatic experiences and stressors in childhood have not been fully considered as predisposing factors for a number of chronic pain disorders including fibromyalgia. However, this is changing as new research is demonstrating a significant relationships between trauma in childhood and adult health.The central nervous system develops rapidly during childhood and as it does, it is trained to react to different kinds of stressors that are encountered in life.

As each environmental stressor is encountered, new connections are formed between the cells of the brain. A traumatic experience creates and reinforces connections that respond to trauma with fear. As we get older the ability to form new pathways and to alter the brain’s response to different stressors decreases.

This means children form more neural pathways that determine how they respond to various experiences and the ability to alter these and replace them with new connections when they are stress responses decreases over time. This underscores the importance of exposing children to positive experiences and helping them learn ways to work through trauma and respond to it with adaptive coping strategies.

However, when negative pathways form in response to traumatic situations which aren’t altered and which become long-term, they increase the frequency and duration of the stress response to trauma-related stimuli. Since trauma these stimuli can be anything the child sensed when the trauma was occurring, the stress response can be unpredictable which makes it all the harder to try to control or cope with. Research has shown that unpredictable, uncontrollable stress can lead to a decreased ability to form new neural connections further decreasing the brain’s ability to create positive pathways. Uncontrollable and unpredictable stress also is related to a number of physical and psychological disorders including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, inflammation, high blood pressure and an impaired immune system.

While trauma is often referred to as an acute stressor, the experience of trauma can continue to cause stress in a child’s life through the symptoms of a stress response such as nightmares, memories, and re-experiencing the trauma when triggered by associated stimuli. So responses to trauma, when not treated will create a chronic stress response which can lead to changes in various hormones and neurotransmitters, including several associated with fatigue and pain. Chronic pain, fatigue and low energy can in term lead to increased psychological stress and psychological disorders which increase the level of stress experienced. While the exact causal pathways have not been determined, an impaired immune system, and changes in certain hormones and neurotransmitters have been associated with the various symptoms that are found in fibromyalgia.

Trauma, even acute trauma often results in chronic symptoms that lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress, especially when it is uncontrollable and unpredictable, can decrease the ability to form new positive neural pathways and alter hormones and neurotransmitters.

This means that the pathways associated with the stress response are harder to alter. When combined with changes in brain chemistry, the effects of an impaired immune system and chronic inflammation symptoms associated with fibromyalgia may result. The symptoms of fibromyalgia can, in turn, further increase stress which, along with the stress from the other factors, help to maintain the symptoms. Other difficulties such as anxiety and insomnia that may also result, simply add even more stress to the pictures. As children are less likely to have adequate coping responses for stress than adults, without help it is unlikely that they will be able to use various psychosocial techniques that might prevent the development of the disorder and have proven effective at decreasing it's symptoms if it does develop.

Updated on April 25, 2018

Original Article:

Childhood Fibromyalgia: A Complex Interaction of Physical, Emotional, Social, and Environmental Influences
By Natalie Frank

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