A self-reported history of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse is frequently reported among chronic pain populations and has been associated with poorer adjustment to pain. In addition, self-reported abuse history has been related to increased pain complaints in population-based studies. One possible explanation for the association between abuse and clinical pain is that abuse victims may display enhanced sensitivity to painful stimuli, which increases the risk of developing clinical pain. However, the limited evidence addressing this issue has been mixed. The purpose of this study was to examine the association between self-reported history of childhood sexual or physical abuse and experimental pain responses in a nonclinical sample of generally healthy young adults.
Participants were 110 (56 female, 54 male) college students who completed a series of questionnaires assessing abuse history, recent pain, health care utilization, perceived health, and psychologic variables. Also, measures of thermal and ischemic pain threshold and tolerance were obtained in all participants. In addition, a procedure assessing temporal summation of heat pain was conducted in which intensity and unpleasantness ratings of repetitive thermal stimuli were obtained. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure and heart rate were assessed at resting and during the ischemic pain task.
Participants with a positive childhood abuse history were oversampled, yielding 21 out of 56 (37.5%) women with a positive history of abuse and 13 out of 54 (24.1%) PHA men. No abuse group differences emerged for thermal or ischemic pain thresholds or tolerances (P values > 0.05). However, compared to women with no childhood abuse history, women with a positive history of abuse provided significantly lower average pain unpleasantness and peak pain unpleasantness ratings and lower unpleasantness ratings of the first trial during the temporal summation procedure, whereas no abuse group differences emerged for men. Also, compared to participants with no childhood abuse history, participants of both genders with a positive history of abuse demonstrated smaller increases (ie, less temporal summation) in pain unpleasantness ratings across trials of thermal stimulation, and participants with a positive history of abuse showed greater decreases in pain intensity and unpleasantness after reaching their peak pain level (ie, greater wind-down) compared to participants with no childhood abuse history. In addition, participants with a positive history of abuse reported more sites of recent pain, poorer perceived health, greater somatization, and more negative affect. No group differences in resting cardiovascular measures or cardiovascular reactivity were observed.
These findings indicate that a self-reported history of childhood abuse is associated with decreased sensitivity to experimentally induced pain, especially among women. However, abuse history was associated with increased pain complaints, poorer self-reported health, and greater negative affect. These data highlight the complexity of the relationship between abuse history and pain and illustrate the need for further investigation of potential pain-related correlates of abuse.