Childhood trauma and adult’s mental health are clearly connected. People who experience traumas like physical abuse, domestic violence, or neglect during childhood often develop high rates of depression in adulthood. Similarly, adults who experienced sexual abuse in childhood often develop substance use disorders.
We talk less often about the connection between childhood trauma and physical health problems in adulthood, perhaps because these relationships are less obvious. For example, researchers tested a group of middle age women for markers of chronic inflammation. Those who experienced early-life sexual abuse had higher rates of inflammatory markers than others. Similarly, researchers found high rates of these markers among adults who experienced physical abuse during childhood.
One explanation for the trauma-inflammation connection is how stress impacts brain development. When experienced in childhood, sustained stress permanently alters amygdala function and immune system response. Sustained stress can cause the amygdala to overreact to the environment later in life, leading to increased production of proteins responsible for inflammation that can affect physical function and produce well-known inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
Sustained stress can cause the amygdala to overreact to the environment later in life, leading to increased production of proteins responsible for inflammation that can affect physical function and produce well-known inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
Arthritis is a chronic inflammation of joints effecting approximately 23% of adults in the US. Some evidence suggests a relationship between childhood trauma and adult arthritis, but less is known about which types of trauma relate to arthritis.
Sharon Brennan-Olsen and colleagues examined responses to questionnaires about trauma among a group of 34,563 adults aged 20 and older in the US. The researchers analyzed questions about multiple forms of trauma: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; emotional and physical neglect; and exposure to intimate partner violence. They also assessed how these experiences differed between men and women. Except for intimate partner violence among women, all types of trauma predicted adult arthritis for both men and women.
The impact of childhood trauma on mental health has become common household knowledge, yet there is much we don’t know about the effect of trauma on physical development. This study reminds us that experiences in childhood can hide in our bodies and erupt over a lifetime. Addressing and preventing trauma in childhood could be a key factor in reducing one of America’s most common chronic inflammatory diseases.
If you have been affected by sexual violence and wish to speak with your nearest sexual assault service provider, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (RAINN) at 1-800-273-8255 or visit rainn.org.