Psychological stress in early life as a predisposing factor for the development of chronic pain: Clinical and preclinical evidence and neurobiological mechanisms

J Neurosci Res. 2017 Jun;95(6):1257-1270. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23802. Epub 2016 Jul 12.


A wealth of research over the past 2 decades has expanded our understanding of the impact of early-life adversity on physiological function and, consequently, health and wellbeing in later life. Early-life adversity increases the risk of developing a number of disorders, such as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. Although much of the research has examined the impact of physical maltreatment, an increasing number of studies have been published over the past few years examining the effect of childhood psychological stress and trauma on the development of various types of chronic pain conditions. We review the clinical and preclinical data examining the link among early-life psychological stress, altered nociceptive behavior, and chronic pain in later life. Evidence supporting a role for certain key neurobiological substrates, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; monoaminergic, opioidergic, endocannabinoid and immune systems; and epigenetic mechanisms in the association between early-life psychological stress and chronic pain, is provided. Greater understanding of the impact of early-life stress may inform the development of personalized treatments for chronic pain in later life and strategies to prevent its onset in susceptible individuals. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: HPA axis; childhood adversity; endocannabinoids; inflammation; opioids; preclinical models.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology
  • Animals
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Chronic Pain / etiology*
  • Chronic Pain / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Neurobiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Translational Research, Biomedical*