The Surprising Adulthood Physical Effects of Childhood Trauma


Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood.

Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood.

Did a parent in your household often swear at you, put you down, or humiliate you?


Did you lose a biological parent through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?

The two questions above are two of the ten questions in a survey that gives participants an “ACE” Score.

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Events, and the survey was developed as part of a research project that looked at how childhood events can increase the chance of adulthood chronic diseases.

A lot has been written about the ACE research (here and here) and this article is not meant to be a comprehensive review.  However, I was recently reminded of the power of this research and I wanted to hi-light some important points.


#1. Autoimmune Disease and Fibromyalgia are directly affected by childhood trauma.

The original research looked at the increased incidence of adult behaviors like cigarette smoking, likelihood of depression, decreased school and work performance as an adult. With a score of 4/10, the risk of depression goes up 460%; the risk of hepatitis 240%!  But a more recent understanding of childhood trauma shows us that a high ACE score can also increase the likelihood of fibromyalgia and autoimmune disease.

I see a lot of these patients and I always ask in the intake questionnaire if the person has experienced some kind of childhood abuse or trauma.  I started asking after I noticed it popping up a lot in the interviews and how it often meant that they had a more difficult time getting better with standard treatment plans.  Even for those patients who had undergone counseling, a history of feeling neglected or abused changed their brain in a way that keeps them from dealing with stress in a health way.

This short video from a Harvard public information site does a pretty good job of explaining why.


#2. Having an increased ACE score due to childhood events is really really common.

The original research was done on 17,000 middle and upper-middle class, mostly white San Diegans who had good jobs and good healthcare through Kaiser Permanente. And 67% of that group had experience at least one of the 10 most common childhood traumas.  And of the 2/3 of people who had experienced childhood trauma, 87% of them had experienced more than one.  In certain situations, traumas tend to pile on top of each other and as I noted above, this skyrockets the chance of problems later.

#3. Traumas unavoidable in many cases, so what can we do?

If you download the ACE Survey from this link, you’ll notice that on the second page is something called a Resilience questionnaire.  It’s not a rigorous, research-based survey, but it does hi-light some important experiences that can help us overcome trauma.  And in case you don’t want to read it, I’ll boil it down for you: LOVE.  If you feel loved and cared for by others, it’s possible that it might deflect some of the negative stress in the environment.

Regardless, I find it important to recognize that emotionally stressful experiences can have a wide-ranging effect on our health.  Suppressed emotions can lurk in our connective tissue, and childhood trauma can change the ways we respond to stress and pain.  The essence of holistic medicine is to take all of these factors into account with each patient. There are many therapies and medicines that can help with the effects of trauma. And recognizing it’s role in disease is the first step to healing.

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