New findings from a team of German researchers point to alterations in normal pain perception in people who experience serious emotional trauma but don’t go on to develop diagnosable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Most men, women and children who live through highly traumatic events or situations do not develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, their traumatic experiences may still affect them in significantly negative ways. Chronic pain is a common health complaint in trauma survivors. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal Pain, researchers from two German institutions compared the typical patterns of non-specific chronic back pain found in PTSD-free people affected by serious emotional trauma to the patterns found in people not affected by such trauma.
Emotional Trauma vs. PTSD
Any person who experiences jarring, unexpected or unwanted changes in his or her daily life can experience emotional trauma, a reaction that at least temporarily overwhelms the human ability to cope with stress and maintain a sense of well-being and mental balance. Significant but usually relatively mild traumatizing experiences can include things such as being publicly embarrassed or humiliated, losing a job or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. More severe traumatizing experiences include such things as experiencing rape or any other form of sexual assault, experiencing a physical assault, experiencing any form of child abuse, witnessing or directly participating in combat, being caught in a natural disaster, surviving a major accident and experiencing a life-threatening medical condition. Exposure to severe emotional trauma is associated with a distinct chance of developing PTSD, a condition defined by impairing trauma reactions that last for more than 30 days or only arise 30 days or more after a traumatizing event or situation. However, in most cases, severe trauma does not lead to the onset of the disorder. In fact, only roughly 8 percent of all trauma-exposed men will develop PTSD, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. For a number of reasons, trauma-exposed women have a much higher 20 percent PTSD rate.
Emotional Trauma and Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is the common term for pain that doesn’t resolve relatively quickly and remains present after the expected timeframe in which the body would normally complete its natural healing process for an injury. This type of pain, which can produce serious impairments in the ability to maintain a functional daily routine, frequently has a prominent physical cause, such as persistent inflammation or damaged or altered nerve function. However, chronic pain may also have a substantial emotional/psychological component, even when it clearly has an underlying physical source. In addition, some people have chronic pain symptoms that are largely psychosomatic in origin. The experience of significant emotional trauma is recognized as a potential contributing factor to chronic pain, whether that pain has a primarily physical source or a primarily psychosomatic source.
Emotional Trauma and Pain Perception
In the study published in Pain, researchers from Germany’s University of Heidelberg and Center for Biomedicine and Medical Technology Mannheim used a project involving 180 adults to assess the impact that emotional trauma has on the symptoms of chronic pain found in people with non-specific back problems (a common source of chronic pain-related complaints). Fifty-six of these study participants had chronic back pain and had also been exposed to some sort of emotional trauma. Another 93 participants had chronic back pain unaccompanied by a history of emotional trauma, while the remaining 31 participants acted as a generally healthy comparison group unaffected by chronic back pain or emotional trauma. The researchers subjected the members of all three groups to testing procedures designed to determine such things as their general threshold of pain sensitivity and their sensitivity to specific types of physical stimulation. After reviewing the results of these procedures, the researchers concluded that people exposed to emotional trauma typically have different chronic back pain characteristics than their counterparts unaffected by emotional trauma. In people with no history of trauma exposure, a lowered general pain threshold and increased sensitivity to specific pain sources usually only appear in those areas of the back identified as the origin point of their problems. Conversely, people with a history of trauma exposure have a lower overall pain threshold. In addition, they show a wider pattern of increased pain sensitivity that includes areas not identified as the origin point of their problems.