Fibromyalgia: Childhood Abuse and Stress Hormones as a Cause

In reviewing a few thousand fibromyalgia cases there appeared to be four main components – autoimmunity, digestive bowel issues, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and stress hormones. Unfortunately it took a while to realize that the reason our patients weren’t responding to a variety of stress relieving herbs and strategies was because they weren’t just getting stressed – they were in PTSD/fight flight – chronically – and most of the time it was due to incidents of childhood abuse. It became obvious the adrenals – known to most practitioners as the “stress glands” were the wrong target. The right target was the brain.

In a 2010 article in the Journal of Pain on fibromyalgia the researchers noticed the phenomenon of central sensitization which is when the central nervous system (mainly the brain) goes through a process called windup and gets regulated into a persistent high state. We call this phenomenon central pain syndrome. And in short your brain is continuously telling your adrenal glands to create stress hormones. Many studies since then have found that the pain nerves in the fibromyalgia patient, as a result of central sensitization, were firing too much in proportion to normal stimuli. In other words someone gives the fibromyalgia sufferer a hug and it’s very painful. What the studies found was that stress hormones can help to sensitize the pain nerve endings of the body and up-regulate these pain transmission cycles. The more stress hormones, the more your pain nerves start to transmit pain signals.

The studies opened a Pandora’s box on what kind of stresses throughout life could be causing the pain in fibromyalgia sufferers. Even stressors that moms went through when the fibromyalgia sufferer was in utero (because the stress hormones can be passed through to the fetus) were evaluated. They also evaluated premature birth stresses, surgeries (which increase stress hormones 20 to 30%) as well as the topic at hand – childhood abuse. The studies showed that all of these entities can cause chronic stress hormone cycles.

As a result, on our intake forms and oral interviews, we began to ask about all of these possible chronic stressors. The question on childhood stress and trauma was alarmingly positive – meaning the majority of our fibromyalgia patients had experienced this emotional trauma (80% of a few thousand). Whether it is by physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or some horrific circumstances later in life (being raped, watching somebody die, divisive divorce, alcoholic spouse) frequently, shortly after these traumas occurred the eventual fibromyalgia sufferer began to develop pain.

How does this happen? As a child the child’s brain is not really well-developed until approximately 19 years old. Think of a teenager. They don’t always make the best decisions. That’s because the frontal lobes – which act as the brake pedal on the human stress response, are not fully myelinated or developed yet. When a child is exposed to severe trauma their fear center (amygdala) starts to light up like a firecracker. As stated – that fear center is meant to be kept in check by the frontal lobe. But since the frontal lobe is not strong enough yet the fear center gets programmed into a heightened state of activation for a long period of time (central sensitization). This mechanism has been shown to be present in many studies whether it relates to IBS, depression, anxiety or fibromyalgia, and that for individuals who are exposed to that childhood trauma later in life they are predisposed to their condition because their stress responses are abnormally high and sensitive 24 hours a day.

Frequently this “condition” remains active for the traumatic childhood stress sufferer for the rest of their life – even after the frontal lobe myelinates and the event is long gone. So if your fear center is programmed and your stress hormones are sensitized from childhood trauma the eventual “fibro” sufferer becomes a compromised host and vulnerable to numerous stress related immune and digestive triggers. So this person may go through a marital breakup and the stress level is 50% higher or it could be that their “natural” daily stress hormones are 20 to 30% higher when they’re not even in any stressful situations – and suddenly the stress hormones damage many physiological functions when “triggered”. Triggers can be – a further stress, infection, delivering a child, surgery, a car accident, moving from one home to another. The physiological results of these triggers of excessive stress hormone response from childhood traumatic hyper activation of the fear center include – can’t go to sleep, can’t go back to sleep, short-term memory loss, brain fog, can’t find words, migraines, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, chronic sinus infections, asthma, ulcers, H. pylori, leaky gut, SIBO, gallbladder and pancreas dysfunction, food sensitivities, chronic constipation, chronic cystitis, chronic UTIs, low libido, chronic fatigue, PCOS, all of the above mentioned symptoms – and more.

This mechanism is the major component of fibromyalgia.  It was for me.  And it must be dealt with preferably without drugs. Until this mechanism in the fibromyalgia patient is effectively dampened it has been our experience that treating most of the aspects of the condition result in minimal, temporary, or no results. For further information on this condition and its management you can go to and review a more comprehensive discussion of the topic by searching either “central pain syndrome”, “Exposing the underlying causes, stress and fibromyalgia”, or “Stress and its destructive effects on the human body.”

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