Objective: Studies have shown that common symptoms in childhood predict the onset of chronic widespread pain in the short term. However, it is unknown whether this association persists into adulthood. The aim of the current study was to examine, prospectively, whether children with common symptoms experience an increased risk of chronic widespread pain as adults.
Methods: Information on vomiting/bilious attacks, abdominal pain, and headaches/migraine was collected on 10,453 7-year-old children, by maternal report. Similar data were gathered when the children were ages 11 years and 16 years. Body pain at age 45 years was assessed by postal questionnaire. Poisson regression was used to examine chronic widespread pain in relation to childhood symptom reporting.
Results: Of the 10,453 subjects on whom data were obtained when they were children, 7,470 participated at age 45 years (71.5%). Children with multiple symptoms at age 7 years experienced a 50% increased risk of chronic widespread pain (relative risk 1.5 [95% confidence interval 1.03, 2.3]). This relationship persisted after adjustment for sex, recent psychological distress, and childhood and current socioeconomic status, and after excluding children with major illnesses that might have explained early symptom reporting. A similar relationship with symptoms at ages 11 and 16 years was observed, although this was not associated with additional risk compared with that found with the presence of symptoms at age 7 years. However, despite a modest increase in risk, the presence of multiple symptoms at early ages was uncommon (<1.5%), and therefore, the associated population attributable risk was low (<1%).
Conclusion: Multiple common symptoms in childhood are associated with an increased risk of chronic widespread pain in adulthood. However, the magnitude of this increased risk is modest, and reports of multiple symptoms in childhood are uncommon. Thus the "early pain pathway" phenomenon is applicable only to a small proportion of individuals with chronic widespread pain.