A person who suffered abuse may have a hyper-reactive nervous system. When a dangerous situation occurs, a person’s “fight or flight” response kicks in. This manifests as a series of symptoms, including hyper-alertness, nervousness and muscle tension. Evolutionarily, this response is very useful, as it prepares the body for action. However, for people who have experienced trauma, the reactivity can remain in play after the immediate danger no longer exists.
The nervous system is likely involved in many cases of chronic pain. Pain is not always the result of a physical injury or tissue damage. Sometimes, pain comes from the brain itself, which may mistakenly interpret innocuous signals as painful; or, the sensory nerves may improperly transmit pain signals to the brain. These situations are called “central sensitization,” and it may be at the route of pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain wherein no physical cause of pain is identifiable.
Central sensitization may be related to the hyper-reactivity of the nervous system present in cases of trauma. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a history of abuse is the source of chronic pain. Rather, studies have found that patients with histories of abuse tend to have worse or more widespread pain than others with the same pain conditions who have not experienced abuse. See www.bestthinking.com for a roundup of the research.
Abuse can change the way the brain and body work so that chronic pain conditions are exacerbated. As such, it’s important for health professionals to know if a patient suffered past abuse. Treatment methods are available to help people recovery psychologically, emotionally and physically from traumatic events of the past. Psychotherapy is the best option, as it involves getting to the root of the problem. As patients develop the skills to cope with events of the past, their nervous systems may reflect the positive changes, calming down both the anxiety and the physical pain it produces when in a state of hyper-reactivity. Psychotherapy may be a key component of chronic pain treatment.