Can Childhood Abuse Make You Sick?

In my practice I often see examples of the mind-body connection, of the ways exposure to violence or trauma impacts not only psychological but also physical health. Recent research recognizes the impact that childhood abuse can have on health in adulthood. For example, migraines, chronic pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome have all been found to be more common among those with a history of childhood abuse. Fibromyalgia may be triggered by severe physical or emotional trauma. Girls with hostile or stressful home environments were found to reach puberty earlier, which in turn has been linked to various health problems.

The following study looks at the relationship between childhood abuse and autoimmune diseases.

Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults

Shanta R. Dube, PhD, MPH, DeLisa Fairweather, PhD, William S. Pearson, PhD, MHA, Vincent J. Felitti, MD, Robert F. Anda, MD, MS and Janet B. Croft, PhD

From National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (S.R.D., W.S.P. R.F.A., J.B.C.), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Adult and Community Health, Atlanta, Georgia; Department of Environmental Health Sciences (D.F.), Bloomberg School of Public Health and Department of Pathology, School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; and the Department of Preventive Medicine (V.J.F.), Southern California Permanente Medical Group (Kaiser Permanente), San Diego, California.

Objective: To examine whether childhood traumatic stress increased the risk of developing autoimmune diseases as an adult.

Methods: Retrospective cohort study of 15,357 adult health maintenance organization members enrolled in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study from 1995 to 1997 in San Diego, California, and eligible for follow-up through 2005. ACEs included childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; growing up with household substance abuse, mental illness, parental divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. The total number of ACEs (ACE Score range = 0-8) was used as a measure of cumulative childhood stress. The outcome was hospitalizations for any of 21 selected autoimmune diseases and 4 immunopathology groupings: T- helper 1 (Th1) (e.g., idiopathic myocarditis); T-helper 2 (Th2) (e.g., myasthenia gravis); Th2 rheumatic (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis); and mixed Th1/Th2 (e.g., autoimmune hemolytic anemia).

Results: Sixty-four percent reported at least one ACE. The event rate (per 10,000 person-years) for a first hospitalization with any autoimmune disease was 31.4 in women and 34.4 in men. First hospitalizations for any autoimmune disease increased with increasing number of ACEs (p < .05). Compared with persons with no ACEs, persons with ≥2 ACEs were at a 70% increased risk for hospitalizations with Th1, 80% increased risk for Th2, and 100% increased risk for rheumatic diseases (p < .05).

Conclusions: Childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of hospitalization with a diagnosed autoimmune disease decades into adulthood. These findings are consistent with recent biological studies on the impact of early life stress on subsequent inflammatory responses. Abbreviations: ACE = adverse childhood experience; AD = autoimmune disease; Th1 = T-helper 1; Th2 = T-helper 2; CRP = C-reactive protein; CRH = corticoid releasing hormone.

I believe that this research is important in that it can serve to increase awareness about the severity and lifelong impact of childhood abuse. Perhaps given the stigma that still exists around mental health issues, the public will take lasting physical health impact of earlier abuse more seriously?

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

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18 Responses to Can Childhood Abuse Make You Sick?

  1. Gwenny says:

    I’m glad to see that recognition is being given to all the ways abuse impacts a person. I hope someday this will lead not only to laws that forbid ANY physical punishment but to treatments that will allow people to live free of emotional and physical pain.

  2. cornnut32 says:

    i would be interested in seeing any research you have or know of that links migraines to childhood abuse, as i suffer from chronic migraines.

    this is an interesting subject to me. thanks for sharing.

  3. I have had headaches from early childhood, as young as 7 years old. I have always believed that the stress of growing up in a home with alcoholism and incest was the reason for the headaches. As many incest issues as I have worked through in my recovery, I still don’t do well with stress. Today I get migraines.

  4. I started having problems with chronic headaches and gastritis in my teens. Now I’m noticing more of a connection between my headaches and gastritis and my depression and PTSD. Very interesting article. Thank you.

  5. Just Be Real says:

    Very informative article. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Pingback: Migraine Headaches and Childhood Abuse « Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  7. Hi Kathleen,
    I had this little note to self to comment on your last post about the mind body connection regarding abuse and illness, but I guess I lost the note.. LOL
    HOWEVER now I see this post so I will comment on both here in this new one. I had many health issues my entire life. I wrote a whole blog post a few weeks ago about how I got so sick from the emotional abuse of a teacher that the Dr. ordered the school to take me out of the class in grade 5. My parents were not listening to me or it would not have taken a Dr. to take charge, so there was some obvious abuse at home too. I have also had headaches most of my life, but they got better with therapy when I really gave myself whole heartily to the process of healing. (that means that I didn’t hold back. I was totally honest with the therapist… what the heck did I have to lose by that time?)
    What I wanted to comment about though was by the time I was in my early 40s I was having trouble with very irregular periods and had been diagnosed with peri menopause. After 4 years of intensive therapy for DID and chronic depression, (mostly bi-polar) I suddenly got regular and have stayed regular for years now. All kinds of little health problems cleared up! I asked my therapist about it, it seemed so odd to me and he confirmed that it is in fact common for many people to recover from physical illness when they have mental health issues resolved as mine were.
    Just wanted to share my personal experience! Still love your blog!
    Darlene Ouimet

  8. Pingback: Violence Begets Violence « Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

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  10. Pingback: Childhood Sexual Abuse and Pregnancy | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  11. Anne says:

    I realize this is an old post, but thought I’d add the following two resources to the discussion:
    CDC ACE Pyramid Study:
    Dr. Gabor Mate at Democracy Now: “When the Body Says No”

  12. I teach child safety/prevention education to adults to help reduce a childs risk for sexual abuse. Parents often come to me for tips on kidnapping prevention but their heads nearly snap off in shock when I tell them that realistically, their childs chance of being abducted by a stranger is about 1 in a million but their childs chance of being sexually exploited by age 18 is about 1 in 5. Prevention education is SO POWERFUL. I think that the link between mental and physical illness in children who have experienced childhood trauma is so telling. I think that more parents need to know this and I plan on sharing!

  13. Pingback: Trauma and World Mental Health Day | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma

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