Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue and childhood trauma/ abuse

“I have a strong sense that fibromyalgia may well be based on extremely early and probably preverbal trauma that often is difficult to document in a patient’s clinical history”, Robert Scaer

As I noted in my book and on several blogs, childhood trauma seems to have resulted in the development of an overly sensitive, highly empathetic adult prone to hyper vigilance and lack of resiliency to life’s many challenges. A highly sensitive person (HSP) with an over aroused nervous system is how I define  fibromyalgia…in my view it is both a definition and the cause. The work of Dr. Peter Levine whom I have quoted elsewhere and Dr. Robert Scaer have reinforced my belief about the cause of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. (Like Dr. Scaer I link the two syndromes together.)  I do not believe that either of these syndromes developed after a single event, but rather a series of either minor or major traumas which have accumulated over the years. Hence the preponderance of cases reported in middle aged women. This is not to negate the fact that children and men too may have a predisposition to fibromyalgia as highly sensitive persons who have experienced many ‘hidden wounds’ (Scaer).

I would take this step even further and suggest that this dis-ease occurs more severely among those who are disenfranchised in society such as women, the poor, mentally or physically challenged, gays and lesbians, people of colour. While abuse and other forms of trauma or personal crises can occur in any home situation  no matter what the socio-cultural status, it is likely that if a person is also marginalized in some way there is a double jeopardy. But it is not fair to make comparisons among groups as it is difficult to know if, like Scaer suggests, trauma may occur at a preverbal stage of life. Could it be having an episode as a baby/infant, such as a fall, for example, requiring hospitalization bring about the highly sensitive nervous system of the adult? Scaer suggests that it is the accumulation of life’s little events that can shape our lives and not one single event. There are many scenarios that one could imagine which could bring about  hypervigilance and an overly sensitive nervous system. Thinking to such extreme cases of war, sexual or physical abuse  to the less dramatic crises in a child’s life  and attempting to compare the level of damage is a useless endeavour. Answers are not clear cut and it is little wonder that the old nature/nurture does not really matter. Who can tell, for example, if as a fetus one was subject to extreme conditions of a highly sensitive mother that later were passed on to the child? Furthermore, how was that child raised if the mother herself was highly sensitive? To try to find the root cause of the personality of the hyper vigilant person with fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue is not possible in many cases.

If there is one book I would highly recommend for an understanding of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue it is this book. It would be unfair of me to cite more than I already have as the book should be read in its entirety. I disagree with his use of the term disease and would rather he used the term dis-ease, but that is a minor point. Scaer’s conclusion and epilogue are both hopeful and certainly worthy of our consideration even though they are not directly related to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. I conclude with this quote from his book:

“I believe that the weakness and collapse that is seen in fibromyalgia and other posttraumatic states relates to the parasympathetic immobility of the freeze response”, (p.218).

For more on the freeze response see my earlier blogs in 2009, and in particular April 12, 2009 : “Is Fibromyalgia a Psychosomatic Disorder?” as well as several others that address the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

P.S. Please dear readers read the comments of Marilyn Trubey in the blog “Fibromyalgia and goodism…” 2009/05/09 . Amazing what can be done for the brain and wish we all had access to this kind of treatment!

25 comments

  1. Sugel says:

    This becomes important when it comes to understanding interactions with HSPs. Many societies–especially in the industrialized West– do not value sensitivity, because we live in competitive “dog-eat-dog” cultures. Whatever your perception of sensitivity may be, keep in mind that telling a highly sensitive person to “get over it” and “develop a thicker skin” is an exercise in futility; they cannot change the way their nervous system is wired any more than you can change the natural color of your eyes or the size of your feet.

  2. Linda says:

    I have been reading your blog, and I can’t believe how well they describe me!! I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia about 3 years ago after the death of my parents. I was 55 at the time.

    I am a HSP. I have always been sensitive to how other people feel, to the point where I sometimes feel their guilt or sadness, even when they don’t.

    I grew up in a very strict home and was abused by my father. My mother was from the “old world” and believed whatever the man of the house said or did was how it should be.

    As I grew up my sensitivity just grew stronger. Being in crowds is difficult, if not impossible for me. I don’t like being around loud noises, or hearing people yell at each other. I like it totally quiet, but seldom get that at home, and since I work with preschoolers 8 hours a day, when the kids are napping is the best time of the day for me.

    Thank you for writing your blog, you have given me hope!!!

  3. Kathy Kohl says:

    I have been living with Fibromyalgia since the birth of my second child 9 years ago…maybe before. I have come to the conclution that it was linked with my eating disorders from 16 to 32 years of age. I was at my worst when I was still growing at around 16 years old. But from what you have said I was that child, noise, tags, scratchy wool sweaters(we didn’t wear often in AZ, thank God) but all that stuff did bother me and would send me home from playing to change clothes or shoes or my ponytail holder. anything like that..Now at 45 I still have al those issues but have worked at avoiding them…My 9 year old son though wont put on a tshirt with a tag and will only wear his certain kinds of clothes and shoes and even socks….I will make sure to keep an eye on him…..Thanks for the info.

  4. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Kathy:Thank you for your comments from Az.I am wondering if you do remember any childhood trauma other than the eating disorder which seemed to have triggered the eating disorder then the fibromyalgia?It seems like you have control over the eating issues now? I am also wondering if you have any of the other issues that seem to be common like hypervigilance, difficulty with crowds etc? Please keep in touch, Regards, Barbara

  5. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Linda: More and more I am becoming convinced that fibromyalgia and hypersensitivity is caused by early childhood trauma. The relationship between the two is so striking. I am about to write another blog on this issue…stay tuned..thanks for your comments, best wishes, Barbara

  6. Susie B says:

    I recently sent my daughter to someone who does believe that fibro is caused by trauma and spent four days working with her through hypnosis, NLP and Time Line Therapy. My daughter did experience traumas as a very little girl and all of this actually helped to “reset” the way her brain did process the stress form her early childhood events. Today she most often pain free and no longer needs meds. I believe you are on to something here in regards to our brains and how each individual processes.

  7. Wenz says:

    I am interested in hypnosis as there is a year of my child hood missing in my mind. I always lived with my mother from as far back as I can recall until she died while I was just barely 13. There were many deaths in the family around that time and it was a difficult experience. I do consider myself a HBA, and have, for years, thought that this issue is neurological somehow. I got very bad “growing pains” after my Mother died and was forced into living with my Father at 14. A man I did not like, married to a woman I didn’t trust. Im’ 37 today and have been living with Fibro for 7 years.

  8. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Wenz: Your story is a sad one. I hope hypnosis works for you. To me it is further proof of childhood trauma that is the root cause of many of us with chronic pain.
    Best wishes,
    Barbara

  9. Kayleigh says:

    This makes so much sense! I’m actually one of the rare people who’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia at a young age (20) and have probably had it since I hit puberty about 10. I also have a mental disorder similar to PTSD which has been brought about by several instances of sexual abuse as well as continual bullying throughout high school. I think it would be easier for similar patients if this became a more widely circulated piece of information (or idea) so that when we are being treated we deal with the mental and physical issues at the same time

  10. Sousou says:

    I grew up in an institution of the old days where what they called discipline than would send people to jail today for brutality and abuse I must have felt the abandonment @ age 3 till age 14/15 when my mother accepted me back into family life! I was diagnosed with FM years ago, and somehow by the grace of God got much better! But in Feb 2012 I was dx with MVD and now I believe FM is back I think almost full blown, I agree there is hyper sensitivity to others who are in pain, I look forward to learning about how our brain process life in general!
    Thank for this blog Barbara, and God bless you for helping us understand this ” dis-ease “condition.

  11. Denise says:

    Barbara,
    I recently made the connection between my FM & the past childhood sexual abuse I survived on my own. I found your article through a Google search. All this is fine & dandy, I mean it is great that there is starting to be a better understanding to Fibromyalgia, but what do I do with this new understanding. Quite honestly I am mad. I thought I beat him. I refused to allow what he did to me affect me because I would not let him win. Now I find out my own body is violating me? I am causing my own hurt? UGH This upsets me. How do I get my body to stop? Can I get my body to stop? I see a counselor by the way. I spoke with him about this. I made the connection between my Fibromyalgia & what happened to me in the past, because my hands are my #1 place of pain. My stepfather would put his hand over mine & make me touch him. I just want to know how to get the pain to stop. I do NOT & have never felt I was bad or deserved the way he treated me. I know that is rare. I was always indignant & felt he was at fault. How do I make peace with a body that is obviously not at peace with me?

  12. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Denise: I do hope that you will be able to find peace and that you are able to connect with a wonderful therapist who will help you with this trauma. Very best wishes to you, Barbara

  13. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Sousou: I understand now more aobut MVD since I have had a heart attack one month ago. Please stay tuned for my newest blog which I hope to write soon on women and fibromyalgia and heart disease. Best wishes, Barbara

  14. Kathy says:

    Are there a list of therapists who work specifically to help fibro. People deal with trauma? I have been to a psychologist and therapist and I have someone for 20 yrs. and basically you talk and get medicine. so now I am on so much medicine and now that I am in menapause it is torch erring me again. what is the best therapist or doctor to see to finally out this to an end after 15 yrs. of hell.

  15. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Kathy:
    More medicine and more doctor shopping is not, in my view, the way to approach fibromyalgia. It is important for you to begin the process of living a more productive life by taking charge of yourself. It isn’t easy but this dis-ease is not something for which there is a cure. It is dependent upon ourselves to know our own bodies and minds and that which triggers our own flare-ups. Mild exercise is the way to begin…just by taking a short slow walk every day, increasing as you re able. Meditation, recovery yoga, chi-gong or other kinds of relaxation techniques are absolutely necessary. Watch your breathing as I have noticed that most people with fibromyalgia are shallow breathers.
    I hope this advice is helpful. It isn’t easy and a slow process hat requires discipline. It is my own challenge so I can relate to your struggles.
    Best wishes,
    Barbara

  16. Amy says:

    Energy Kinesiology worked extraordinarily well for me. If you are in the Boston area I can recommend practitioners.

  17. Patricia says:

    I am 53yrs of age I was a victim of gang rape and witnessed a murder when I was 15..I had repressed the memories until 43yrs of age.. I worked through the memories, went through arduous police investigations…went through a traumatic divorce at the time of the police investigation and also through the divorce my adult children have chosen not to have anything to do with me since divorcing their father.. oh found out my ex was gay…I have come to terms with my past and recent past… I sought rape crisis counselling and help from a psychiatrist and since 43yrs of age have suffered from physical pain off and on.. and after numerous medical tests which shows mild to moderate osteoarthritis.. the pain has been getting worse but in joints that show no issues.. My GP has opened the idea of fibromyalgia diagnosis.. Just waiting on the final blood test to rule out lupus and rhuematoid condtions.. After reading this I am beginning to wonder whether my body is now feeling the pain I managed to calm from my mind… I once used to be very sensitive and emotional now I seem to feel numbed emotions and the physical pain increasing… Once again I am considering whether psychotherapy may be of assistance… Just when I thought I had done so well to come to terms with my past and divorce and loss of my children… now this..

  18. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Patricia, yours is about the saddest story I have heard. It is little wonder you have an overstimulated nervous system. Hopefully you can access therapy with a well experienced psychotherapist. I would be surprised if you didn’t have fibromyalgia. The post traumatic stress of all these dreadful life experiences must be extraordinary. Please do continue to work with a competent therapist and keep in touch,
    Regards and best wishes,
    Barbara

  19. Patricia says:

    Thanks Barbara, I have researched more on what has been discussed on this thread.. I will certainly be looking into finding a competent therapist. Probably will try to buy this book..I do have a bachelor of science with a major in psychology so I do understand how the limbic system is involved in the flight/fight process. I am extremely proud of my ability to overcome my trauma’s in a psychological way where it no longer drags me down or triggers me.. hence I am intrigued and interested in how my brain may now be referring pain into my joints. I will certainly keep you posted..

  20. Diane Emm says:

    I was discussing my fibromyalgia with a friend last night and she asked me if I had a troubled childhood… I did… she said that, knowing other fibromyalgia sufferers, she wonders if it could’ve been caused by that.
    So I spoke to another fibromyalgia sufferer today who said she also had a traumatic childhood… so I decided to research and found this article. It describes me very well… a highly sensitive individual who feels others pain, items like me known as Uber-Empath… and it wears me out.
    I suffered the loss of a daughter in July, 2005 and I suffer again year after year, the emotional wounds reopen and I have vivid memories of that traumatic event, watching my beloved daughter die and then buried, and I cannot keep the vivid memories from haunting me. I distract mysel and try to stay positive but I can’t forget. I have a”friend”who tells me to think positive and just get over it…but as stated its like telling me to change the color of my eyes.
    I suffered a nervous breakdown for 2 years… didn’t know what the problem was, only knew I wanted to sleep all day/night long, next thing I know I was’nt functioning at all and two years had passed me by. :-(
    I start crying just thinking about the hell I’ve endured, I cry so easily…and have been told by unreasonable ones so many times to grow a thicker skin…wish I COULD!!
    My life has been a long series of pain…. physical, mental & emotional, and my fibromyalgia is exacerbated by emotional pain, and vice versa. It’s a vicious cycle.
    I have to see pain management Dr every month so I can function. I also take anti depressants and mood stabilizers but I often think about suicide. If not for my husband and my little dogs I don’t know what I would do. If anything ever happened to him I would, once again, fall apart at the seams, as my grandmother used to say whenever I got very emotional. I am a mess..yes, and dealing with fibromyalgia daily is a living hell.
    Thanks to ones like you who help people like me to gain understanding…have always wondered about why my body betrays me with such intense debilitating pain. I’ve always wondered if my core spinal injuries had to do with being picked up and bounced off walls. Didn’t know the fibromyalgia was caused by that too.

  21. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank you so much for your comments, Diane. It seems as though your dear brain has endured physical and emotional pain for so long that it is having a difficult time remembering joy and hope. your story resonates with that of so many with fibromyalgia. I wish you peace, Barbara

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