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Childhood Stress and Trauma: Can It Impact the Development of RA?

Last updated: May 2023

This article was inspired by my current rheumatologist. She is my eighth rheumatologist, and I believe 8 is my lucky number. I started seeing her in 2018.

At that time, I was facing a lot of life challenges, and my disease was out of control. She is the first rheumatologist that took a holistic approach to treating me. I had previously been on so many different medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis and the pain. However, nothing seemed to work or provide any sort of relief.

What caused my RA?

She was the first rheumatologist to not only discuss potential medication options but also to look into and help improve other areas of my life. Where did my rheumatoid arthritis come from? It honestly always bothered me, the fact that we don’t know what causes rheumatoid arthritis. There are a lot of theories out there, but nothing as of yet pinpoints a direct cause.

So many questions run through my head since my diagnosis. Did I have a genetic predisposition to getting it? Was it because I was female? Did my diet or environmental conditions contribute to getting RA? So many questions and not enough answers.

Environmental influences

I’ll be honest, until I met my current rheumatologist, I looked at environmental causes very literally. Did the fact that I grew up in a smoking household contribute to my RA? Was it my geographic location on Earth? Was there a specific air pollutant or chemical that I was exposed to?

My current rheumatologist is really the first healthcare professional to explain to me that the actual daily environmental experiences that I grew up with were also considered environmental. It was in her office that I learned the connection that stress, emotions, and childhood and/or current trauma can play in rheumatoid arthritis.

After that rheumatology visit, I started working with a mental health therapist to dive a little deeper. Really trying to understand if there was something in my past that needed to be addressed. In my journey, I eventually ended up in trauma therapy to work on some issues. I went through lots of assessments to assess my exposure to adverse childhood conditions.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and rheumatoid arthritis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website defines Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as being “…potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic Stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and more in adulthood.”1

Additionally, a study that looked at cumulative childhood stress and autoimmune disease in adults revealed that there is a 100% increased risk of developing rheumatic disease in adulthood if the study participants experienced two or more traumatic events in their childhood.2 Honestly, the data circles back to what my rheumatologist was explaining to me about the impact the environment we grow up in can have on the development of RA in adulthood.

Raising awareness of these impacts

The purpose of this article was to bring awareness to this very important topic. There are specific studies that show a link between how trauma can impact our brain and body. From my own personal experiences, I have first-hand learned how my own adverse childhood experiences have not only mentally but physically impacted me in my adulthood.

I am not sure that this article will resonate with anyone out there. If it does, I can tell you that there is help out there. Please do not hesitate to have this conversation with your doctor. There are mental health professionals out there that can help.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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