Applied Evidence

A new paradigm for pain?

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From The Journal of Family Practice | 2016;65(9):598-600,602-605.


Childhood trauma influences adult pain. One of the more compelling narratives emerging in health care has to do with the influence that childhood developmental trauma can have on health, including pain. In his chapter on the impact of early life trauma on health and disease, Lanius states:12

“Women were 50% more likely than men to have experienced 5 or more categories of adverse childhood experiences. We believe that here is a key to what in mainstream epidemiology appears as women’s natural proneness to ill-defined health problems like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic non-malignant pain syndromes. In light of our findings, we now see these as medical constructs, artifacts resulting from medical blindness to social realities and ignorance of the impact of gender.”

Brain activity in response to emotional insult mimics physical pain, and it is difficult to tell from images of brain activity whether a person is experiencing one or the other.

Lanius12 suggests that adverse childhood experiences13 (trauma such as abuse and sexual assault) can lead to long-term changes within the nervous system, including areas of pain processing. My coauthor and I describe these changes here in terms of nervous system sensitization or dysregulation, and we believe that these changes lead to a bias toward hyperactivation of emotional pain circuits, which leads to the emotionally laden pain behaviors that often seem out of proportion to tissue pathology.

Case study: Were psychological factors driving these symptoms?

Judith B, a 34-year-old single mother of 2, presents to the office after 2 years of fruitless medical, rheumatologic, and neurologic work-ups for diffuse muscle pain, headaches, fatigue, and difficulty falling asleep after a motor vehicle accident (MVA) in which her injuries were not severe. She reports that sleep is difficult “because I cannot shut my mind off.”

Before the accident, she was healthy and working full-time, but now she is thinking about applying for disability because she believes she cannot continue teaching grade school given the severity of her lingering post-accident symptoms. A previous physician prescribed immediate-release oxycodone 5 mg QID and carisoprodol 350 mg tid, which has provided little improvement in function. Her physical exam is relatively unremarkable although she is clearly distressed and moving slowly, with diffuse soft tissue tenderness. A brief psychosocial screening demonstrates an adverse childhood experience score of 3 with a “Yes” to question 3 (sexual abuse) and a high score on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item Scale (14 out of 21), indicating significant anxiety.

Given our findings, we referred the patient to a psychologist for a complete psychologic evaluation, explaining that we were looking for answers to the question: “To what degree do psychosocial factors drive this patient’s physical complaints?” The psychologist reported that she believed that psychological factors were the main driver of her symptoms, with childhood trauma “reactivated” by the trauma of the MVA.

The patient was initially suspicious that we were simply going to tell her that her symptoms were "all in her head," but the following explanation helped her to understand where we were going with therapy: “Imagine that your muscles are trying to have a conversation with your brain, and your nervous system is the phone line. The phone line is full of static and is distorting the message, so we need to work on the communication system.”

Three months of a multi-pronged approach led to improvement in the patient's sleep and fatigue. This approach included cognitive behavioral therapy and somatic experiencing (a method designed to normalize the nervous system changes induced by adverse childhood or adult experiences without requiring patients to recall or think about those events). These efforts were supported by titration of sertraline to 150 mg/day (trials of duloxetine and venlafaxine caused too many adverse effects) and acupuncture. Ms. B returned to teaching and fulfilling relationships with her fiancé and children. She was able to stop the oxycodone and carisoprodol after 2 months of the sertraline and several sessions of somatic experiencing, and she remains pain-free.

Author’s note: This case exemplifies so many of the patients we, as clinicians, see in daily practice and highlights the necessity of vigorously pursuing research in the area of pain due to psychological reasons. This is particularly true when considered in the context of the magnitude of disability due to chronic pain and of pain treatment failures, which have contributed to the current prescription opioid crisis.

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