Sexual orientation and functional pain in U.S. young adults: the mediating role of childhood abuse

PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e54702. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054702. Epub 2013 Jan 23.


Objective: Pain without known pathology, termed "functional pain," causes much school absenteeism, medication usage, and medical visits. Yet which adolescents are at risk is not well understood. Functional pain has been linked to childhood abuse, and sexual orientation minority youth (gay, lesbian, bisexual, "mostly heterosexual," and heterosexual with same-sex sexual contact) are more likely to be victims of childhood abuse than heterosexuals, thus may be at greater risk of functional pain.

Methods: We examined sexual orientation differences in past-year prevalence of functional headache, pelvic, and abdominal pain and multiple sites of pain in 9,864 young adults (mean age = 23 years) from a large U.S. cohort. We examined whether childhood abuse accounted for possible increased risk of functional pain in sexual minority youth.

Results: Sexual minority youth, except for gays and lesbians, were at higher risk of functional pelvic and abdominal pain and multiple sites of pain than heterosexuals. Gay and lesbian youth had elevated prevalence only of abdominal pain. Childhood abuse accounted for 14% to 33% of increased experience of multiple sites of pain in minority youth.

Conclusions: Youth who identify as "mostly heterosexual" or bisexual or who identify as heterosexual and have had same-sex partners comprised 18% of our sample. Clinicians should be aware that patients with these orientations are at elevated risk of functional pain and may be in need of treatment for sequelae of childhood abuse. Conventional categorization of sexual orientation as heterosexual or homosexual may fail to distinguish a large number of youth who do not wholly identify with either group and may be at elevated risk of health problems.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain* / epidemiology
  • Abdominal Pain* / etiology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Headache* / epidemiology
  • Headache* / etiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pelvic Pain* / epidemiology
  • Pelvic Pain* / etiology
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexuality*
  • United States / epidemiology