Childhood adversity is a vulnerability factor for chronic pain. However, the underlying pain mechanisms influenced by childhood adversity remain unknown. The aim of the current study was to evaluate the impact of childhood adversity on dynamic pain sensitivity in young adults.
After screening for childhood adverse events and health status, healthy individuals reporting low (below median; n = 75) or high levels of adversity (the top 5%; n = 51) were invited for pain testing. Both groups underwent heat pain threshold and temporal summation of second pain (TSSP) testing after reporting depressive symptoms. TSSP refers to a progressive increase in pain intensity with repetition of identical noxious stimuli and is attributed to central sensitization. Changes in pain ratings over time (slope) were computed for TSSP sensitization and decay of subsequent aftersensations.
The high-adversity group showed greater TSSP sensitization (meanslope, 0.75; SDpositive slope, 1.78), and a trend toward a slower decay (meanslope, −11.9; SD, 3.4), whereas the low-adversity group showed minimal sensitization (meanslope, 0.07; SDnear-zero slope, 1.77), F(1,123) = 5.84, p = .017 and faster decay (meanslope, −13.1; SD, 3.4), F(1,123) = 3.79, p = .054. This group difference remained significant even after adjusting for adult depressive symptoms (p = .033). No group difference was found in heat pain threshold (p = .85). Lastly, the high-adversity group showed blunted cardiac and skin conductance responses.
These findings suggest that enhancement of central sensitization may provide a mechanism underlying the pain hypersensitivity and chronicity linked to childhood adversity.