Can Chronic Pain Be Passed On to Your Children?

My brain’s first response is of course not”  This is chronic pain here, usually as a result of some type of injury or illness such as RA, lupus or arthritis.

But chronic pain is not something that is passed down in the genes like height or weight or eye color.  Before any of us jump to the conclusion that chronic pain is not passed on, we need to step back and do a better evaluation of what “passed on by the parents” really means.

At first thought, most would consider this little phrase to refer to genetics.  The magic of DNA encoding certain aspects of our being much like hair color (or lack thereof…), height, forked tongue, skin color.  Then there are genetic single gene mutations like osteogenesis imperfecta, Marfan’s syndrome, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy and sickle cell anemia just to name a few.  These are conditions and characteristics that are clearly linked to the genes we got from out parents.

Then come the conditions that we THINK are related to genetics like heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer.  In reality, these diseases are NOT genetic in origin, despite what society thinks.  Or rather I should say that they are not related to a single gene or two or three.  Rather, these conditions are the end result of lifestyle’s interaction with tens or even hundreds of different genes, termed multigenetic inheritance.  These situation is almost impossible to pin down as “genetic” because it is not like you got a single gene from your mom that caused you to get heart disease.  Rather, it is the result of your lifestyle differently affecting ten or twenty or more genes that you got as a mix from both your mother and father.  Because so many genes are involved, these conditions are so heavily influenced by lifestyle as to not be considered “genetic.”

THEN, we have those conditions that are passed on, not necessarily by lifestyle habits or genetics, but rather by a sort of programming.  In a previous blog post, I have covered how stress in the parent plays a role in the health risks of the child.  So if parental stress can alter a child’s health, what about chronic pain in a parent?

Just in case you suffer from chronic pain, before you go and get defensive you need to keep an open mind as you read this particular study.  Researchers looked at the children (aged 13-18) of parents who suffered from some type of chronic pain.  Here is what they found:

  1. Chronic pain in the mom led to a 50% increased risk of the child complaining of chronic nonspecific pain and chronic multisite pain, (Tweet this)
  2. Paternal chronic pain was also associated with increased odds of pain in adolescents and young adults.
  3. The odds of chronic pain in these children was even higher when both parents reported pain.
  4. In children living primarily with their mothers, there were clear associations between maternal pain and pain in the kids.
  5. In children living primarily with their fathers, there was no increased risk of chronic pain in the child.

So what does this mean?  Could it mean that there is a potential for children to pick up on complaints of chronic pain from his or her parent(s) and begin to adopt some of these same attitudes, thus creating the scenario for chronic pain?  Unfortunately, the hard answer here is probably yes.  Parental attitudes and vocalization of chronic pain does appear to influence the risk of their child complaining of some type of chronic pain as well.

However, this could also have other explanations.  Maybe the family is overall more sedentary.  It is likely that a family to sits around watching TV together is getting less exercise.  Less exercise increases the risk of chronic pain.  It is also entirely possible that attitudes towards seeking care for acute pain may strongly influence this relationship.

If mom or dad brushes off getting care for an acute situation or after an injury (which can increase the chance that those symptoms will become chronic), it seems very likely that they will brush off getting treatment for that child if he or she complains of some type of acute pain.  It’s not that the parent is ignoring little Johnny’s complaint of back pain, but maybe the family attitude is one of stoichism and shunning any type of help.  This could lead the child experiencing neck pain and headache from carrying a too-heavy backpack to not get the care he or she needs.

Whichever is the case (and it is likely to be some blending of these scenarios), if you experience chronic pain, you need to be aware that this will increase the risk of your child experiencing chronic pain.  Be an advocate for their symptoms and make sure you don’t delay seeking treatment (from a chiropractor, preferably) as soon as it is noticed.  Maybe this can help break a cycle.

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.