The association between exposure to childhood maltreatment and the subsequent development of functional somatic and visceral pain syndromes

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BACKGROUND: Childhood maltreatment is a global public health issue linked to a vast mortality and morbidity burden. This study builds on current literature to explore the risk of developing central sensitivity syndromes (CSS) (consisting of somatic and visceral pain syndromes) subsequent to childhood maltreatment exposure.

METHODS: A retrospective population based open cohort study using the UK primary care database, 'The Health Improvement Network,' between 1st January 1995-31st December 2018. 80,657 adult patients who had experienced childhood maltreatment or maltreatment related concerns (exposed patients) were matched to 161,314 unexposed patients by age and sex. Outcomes of interest were the development of CSS: either somatic (Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, temporomandibular joint disorder, chronic lower back pain, chronic headache, myofascial pain syndrome and restless leg syndrome) or visceral (Interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, chronic prostatitis and irritable bowel syndrome) in nature. Effect sizes are presented as adjusted incidence rate ratios (aIRR) with confidence intervals (CI). Models were adjusted for the following covariates at cohort entry: age, sex, deprivation, anxiety, depression and serious mental ill health.

RESULTS: The average age at cohort entry was 23.4 years and the median follow was 2.2 years. There was an increased risk of developing fibromyalgia (aIRR 2.06; 95% CI 1.71-2.48), chronic fatigue syndrome (1.47; 1.08-2.00), chronic lower back pain (1.99; 1.68-2.35), restless leg syndrome (1.82; 1.41-2.35) and irritable bowel syndrome (1.15; 1.08-1.22) when compared to the unexposed group, whereas no statistical association was seen with the development of temporomandibular joint disorder (1.00; 0.88-1.13), chronic headache (1.04; 0.59-1.86), interstitial cystitis (1.19; 0.51-2.74), vulvodynia (0.65; 0.34-1.26), chronic prostatitis (0.34; 0.07-1.77) and myofascial pain syndrome (0.88; 0.36-2.14). Outcome numbers were low, most likely, due to the rarity of visceral conditions (aside from irritable bowel syndrome). The association between a history of childhood maltreatment and CSS were mainly observed in somatic CSS.

INTERPRETATION: The debilitating effects of CSS carry a substantial physical, psychological and economic burden to both the individuals who are diagnosed with them and the health services who serve them. Primary prevention approaches targeting childhood maltreatment as well as secondary preventative approaches should be considered to minimise the associated burden of CSS.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100392
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Author(s).


  • Central sensitivity syndromes
  • Childhood maltreatment
  • Epidemiology
  • Primary care


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