Do Emotional Traumas Trigger Fibromyalgia?

Do emotional traumas trigger fibromyalgia? It’s a question that is still open to debate. One of the problems with fibromyalgia syndrome or FMS is that there does not seem to be a single definitive cause or trigger. There is no one reason why the syndrome exists. In fact, there are many different reasons why you may develop fibromyalgia. For example, you may have suffered from a physical trauma, an auto-immune system breakdown or a severe infection.

Research also indicates that you may be genetically predisposed to fibromyalgia, or the fibromyalgia syndrome developed as the result of some environmental issues including chemical and specific allergic reactions.[1] This makes finding a single causal factor difficult and makes fibromyalgia a complex question for researchers and medical professionals to explore. That being said, there does appear to be some support for believing that fibromyalgia syndrome may stem from emotional trauma in some cases.

How do you define Emotional Trauma?

Emotional abuse can cover a wide spectrum of situations and may begin in childhood. For example, emotional abuse may involve parents who constantly bicker when their children are present, or within hearing range. This provides one concrete example of emotional abuse that may not be considered as such by the bickering parents.[2] When one adult verbally abuses another adult or a child, resorting to name calling and other types of verbal attacks, it is a form of emotional abuse.

It can also appear in various other forms. Less typical examples can include physical threats, but without any actual follow-through of violence. The body language may be aggressive and jealousy may play a role. Overall, emotional abuse can include someone devaluating you as a person, isolating you from friends, family and interpersonal contact, denying you emotional stimulation or even normal emotional reactions. Parenting that is inconsistent or “neglectful” is also emotional abuse or trauma. According to research, the consequences of emotional abuse can be serious resulting in various types of chronic pain diseases, disorders and syndromes, including fibromyalgia.[3]

How does this result in Fibromyalgia?

There is no simple or single answer to why emotional abuse or distress may trigger fibromyalgia. One theory is that the constant or intermittent presence of high levels of fear, worry, anxiety, emotional turmoil, sadness, stress and grief damage the ability of your immune system to cope with the onset of specific diseases. In other words, emotional stress can weaken your ability to ward off various chronic pain diseases such as FMS. It is also believed that there is a link between emotional trauma, sleeplessness, headaches, pain and other symptoms and/or potential causal factors.[4]

Another theory is that when you suffer from emotional or even physical trauma during the early period of your life and are genetically susceptible, these factors together may affect your central nervous system (CNS), particularly the brain. Since the brain is in charge of how you respond or react to pain, any prolonged period of stress will have a negative impact on your ability to regulate pain and emotions.

Individuals who self-report their fibromyalgia do often indicate the first onset of their syndrome is related to an extremely stressful period in which emotional trauma occurred. For some, this emotional trauma occurred in their childhood. Victimization at an early age can have a severe long term impact. Emotional trauma can prove to be devastating physically – as much as if you really had been physically abused. In fact, in cases of fibromyalgia, some researchers found indications that emotional abuse played a more significant role than did physical abuse or trauma.[5]

Researchers have discussed how the impact of these events is underestimated when the issue is emotional trauma or neglect. It appears that emotional abuse has been taken less seriously than physical abuse because it does not have outward signs like bruises or broken bones. Considering the effect emotional trauma may have upon those adults who developed fibromyalgia, research data suggests that not only is there a relationship between the onset of fibromyalgia and childhood abuse, but a relationship may also exist between fibromyalgia and adult victimization.[6]

Emotional and Physical Abuse Not Necessarily a Trigger

Not everyone who has experienced emotional trauma will suffer from fibromyalgia. Yet, the higher instances of emotional abuse, particularly in childhood but also in adulthood, associated with individuals who have fibromyalgia indicate the need to be aware of the potential to develop fibromyalgia. Abuse may increase the risk. As a result, it is important to take note of symptoms like headache, chronic pain, lack of sleep and other comorbidities of the fibromyalgia syndrome as they arise. You should not hesitate to discuss these symptoms with a physician.

When it comes to diagnosis and treatment of fibromyalgia, it is important that your doctor consider your emotional or psychological history or current state. It also becomes essential that the physician consider any past factors that could prove causal. In considering triggers of fibromyalgia, it’s necessary for your doctor to expand beyond a purely medical scope that only incorporates physical issues. The possible causal link between past emotional trauma – including emotional abuse and neglect – needs to be explored. It is becoming increasingly evident that in certain instances of fibromyalgia individuals should undergo a psychosocial screening in addition to the medical tests.

More importantly than treatment, the link between emotional abuse as a child and fibromyalgia indicates the need for greater intervention at an early age. It is not enough to treat the fibromyalgia syndrome when it occurs because intervention may prevent some cases. Many instances of emotional abuse of children go undetected; however, when it does become apparent that emotional abuse is occurring, it is critical that intervention occur.

References

[1] Chandler, P (2011). Fibromyalgia Basics: A Beginner’s Guide. Mustang, Oklahoma: Tate Publishing.

[2] Imbierowicz, K; and Egle, UT (2003). “Childhood Adversities in Patients with Fibromyalgia and Somotoform Pain Disorder.” Eur J Pain, 7(2): 113-9.

[3] Gavin, H (2011). “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones: The Effects of Emotional Abuse.” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 20(5):503-529.

[4] Miró, E; Martínez, MP; Sánchez, AI; Prados, G; and Medina, A (2011). “When is Pain Related to Emotional Distress and Daily Functioning in Fibromyalgia Syndrome? The Mediating Roles of Self-Efficacy and Sleep Quality.” Br J Health Psychol, 16(4):799-814.

[5] Tietjen, GE; Brandes, JL; Peterlin, BL; Eloff, A; Dafer, RM; Stein, MR; Drexler, E; Martin, VT; Hutchinson, S; Aurora, SK; Recober, A; Herial, NA; Utley, C; White, L; and Khuder, SA (2010). “Childhood Maltreatment and Migraine (Part II). Emotional Abuse as a Risk Factor for Headache Chronification.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 50(1):32–41.

[6] Lumley, MA; Cohen, JL; Stout, RL; Neely, LC; Sander, LM; and Burger, AJ (2008). “An Emotional Exposure-Based Treatment of Traumatic Stress for People with Chronic Pain: Preliminary Results for Fibromyalgia Syndrome.” Psychotherapy (Chic), 45(2):165-172.

This article was originally published on July 11, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/7/2015