Traumatic experiences in general can trigger both mental and physical health issues in adults, but what about trauma that affects children?

Research has shown how adverse childhood events, or (ACEs), can impact children with a variety of illnesses later on in life, meaning that beyond the years of mental trauma a child abuse survivor could experience, they could also develop physical symptoms as well.

The Side Effects of an ACE

An ACE is an experience that negatively impacted a child before they have turned 18-years-old. The theory behind the research suggests that events that result in extreme emotional stress can cause all sorts of physical changes in the body. These events include:

  • Being abused
  • Witnessing abuse
  • Neglect
  • Other types of dysfunction at home

In fact, past studies like the one conducted by Kaiser in 1998 found that as the number of ACEs in a child’s life increased, so too did the likelihood of “multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults,” including:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Liver disease

Other studies discovered that those who suffered an ACE were at higher risk of developing:

  • Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Frequent headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

From a behavioral perspective, children, teens, and adults who have experienced physical and psychological trauma may also be more likely to adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as:

  • Smoking
  • Substance abuse
  • Overeating
  • Hypersexuality

These behaviors, added with a heightened inflammatory response, can put them at a greater risk for developing certain conditions.

Tying ACEs to Chronic Illness

It is worth noting, however, that more research needs to be done in order for us to have a clear definition of the connection between ACEs and chronic illness. Regardless, there are still steps physicians and individuals alike can follow to approach the exploration of health backgrounds in a better manner.

For instance, one way this can be improved is by healthcare providers bringing up questions regarding past, physical, and emotional traumatic experiences throughout each visit. 

Cyrena Gawuga, the co-author of a 2012 study examining the link between early life stress and chronic pain syndromes, made a point how there isn’t enough attention being placed in clinics towards childhood events and the role they play in health. 

“Basic scales including the ACE or even just asking could make critical differences — not to mention the potential for preventative work based on trauma history and symptoms.” Gawuga also commented that more research has to be conducted to study the way socioeconomic status and demographics may also fall under ACE categories.

With that being said, what this means for providers is that they have to learn to adapt by becoming more trauma-informed to offer better support for those who share personal, difficult childhood experiences.

Survivors often feel shame when it comes to the abuse they suffered through or even their response to the trauma. Being able to open up about the experiences can allow room for more questioning, and those questions won’t be easy to answer right away.

How We Can Do Better 

If we want to prevent ACEs, there must be a foundation for safe, supportive spaces for kids. At the end of the day, these traumatic experiences that children face need to be taken into more serious matters. Once this is accomplished by us as a collective, we can find a better understanding of the correlation that lies between illness and trauma—and even prevent health issues for future generations.

Every single day is a chance for us to fight and protect each and every child from the dangers of abuse, while also guiding their family members to work past that trauma. Let’s keep engaging in these heavy conversations to spread awareness and invoke real change. 

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