Human beings have long sought to understand the basis of pain. Until the late 17th century, pain and disease were considered a byproduct of sin, or something a person endured to test their faith. But after philosopher René Descartes first theorized that pain was a physical sensation interpreted by the brain, doctors started looking to the body for answers.
Today, chronic pain — which affects 50 million people in the United States alone — is still widely understood as a phenomenon that always originates in the body. But a small and influential group of physicians is putting forward a very different hypothesis: Some chronic physical pain, they say, could be a byproduct of unresolved emotional trauma.
This concept can be controversial among people seeking treatment, who might bristle at the idea that their physical pain may not have a physical origin. Implying that there’s an emotional aspect to pain may be mistaken for saying it’s all in a person’s head. But ongoing research shows that chronic physical pain, at least for some people, may really have an emotional and psychological underpinning.
“When people experience trauma, it doesn’t just impact them in terms of their mental health,” says Abigail Lott, licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Emory University. “It can impact their body as well.”
“In statistical models that we run, you can use different variables to predict the likelihood that someone will report pain,” she says. “We’ve seen that the more trauma you experience, the more likely you are to have a pain condition.”
One notable example of this is the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. Published in 1998, the study surveyed 9,500 people about past trauma as kids, such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, and exposure to substance abuse. People who were exposed to more than one adverse childhood experience had a two- to fourfold increased likelihood of poor physical health, including suffering chronic physical pain. Other studies have found a correlation between emotional trauma and the onset of conditions like…