Childhood Abuse and Adult Osteoarthritis

At first glance, it doesn't seem likely that something as horrifying as childhood physical abuse would have anything to do with adult osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis, while difficult for many people who have it, is not an obvious testament to past abuse and neglect. It doesn't involve scarring or bruising on the face or body, and it emerges decades after the traumas a child may have suffered. So why has recent research found that there may be a connection between the two?

While a definitive answer as to why childhood abuse may mean a greater risk of osteoarthritis later in life is elusive, scientists have certain theories. One is that abused children respond very differently to stress than other children. "Children who are abused often experience problems with their production of cortisol, the "fight or flight" hormone," says Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto. These children may become stressed very easily, whether the perceived threats are real or not, and their heightened sensitivity over time may mean they're at higher risk of a variety of diseases, particularly osteoarthritis.

But being abused as a youth is not an automatic life sentence of osteoarthritis. While a higher percentage of abuse sufferers than non-abused children do go on to develop osteoarthritis, the overwhelming majority of abused children do not develop the disease later in life. "Childhood abuse is one factor among many," says Dr. Fuller-Thomson. "The best way for all women to prevent osteoarthritis is to maintain an ideal body weight and to participate in regular low-impact exercise such as swimming and walking."

Obesity has been identified as a risk factor for arthritis, as have depression (which can be related to past abuse) and joint injury. While psychotherapy to deal with the effects of past abuse can be a good way to reduce current osteoarthritis symptoms, it's unknown at this point whether receiving therapy as a child would have prevented the diagnosis of osteoarthritis in the first place.

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, affects millions of people worldwide. While there's no known cure, various medications and treatments can make living with the condition more bearable.