Many studies have reported that children of parents suffering from chronic pain are more likely to develop it themselves. They’re also more likely to experience negative mental and physical health outcomes due to that chronic pain. But so far, the reasons as to why this occurs aren’t entirely understood. In a recent report,[1] two researchers put forth a conceptual model exploring possible reasons for this connection, which could help address – or even prevent – the transmission of chronic pain to the next generation.

About the Report

The report, titled “Transmission of risk from parents with chronic pain to offspring,” was published on May 31 in the journal PAIN, the official publication of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).

It was undertaken because “although the association between chronic pain in parents and offspring has been established, few studies have addressed why or how this relation occurs.” The study authors thus set out to create a conceptual model that could be useful in developing preventative interventions, with the goal of stopping the transmission.

Conceptual Model

The comprehensive model delved into five areas that could be involved in the transmission of pain, as well as the negative mental and physical outcomes that accompany it.

What parents pass down to their children on a biological level obviously has a place in the transmission of pain, as well as the psychological components that accompany it (like depression and anxiety). The study said that genetic factors may actually account for half of the risk of chronic pain in adults.
Early neurobiological development. The way a child’s nervous system develops may be impacted by a parent with chronic pain. For instance, if a mother is dealing with the stress, depression or lack of activity brought about by pain while she is pregnant, it could affect the baby’s development.

Pain-specific social learning. The “learning theory” poses that all behavior – whether good or bad – is learned. Thus some elements of the pain experience may be learned as well, such as parents’ maladaptive pain behaviors. One example of this is catastrophizing: Children see their parents’ exaggerated worries and responses to pain and subconsciously learn to mimic them.
General parenting and health habits. Both the attitudes adults take toward parenting and their own health could rub off on their children, making them more susceptible to chronic pain down the road. Permissive parenting or a lack of consistency and warmth could affect future pain, the study theorized. Likewise, poor exercise and dietary habits could be passed down to children, resulting in chronic pain.
Exposure to a stressful environment. Experiencing increased stress while growing up may play into chronic pain as an adult. For instance, having parents who constantly worry about financial issues or who are unable to complete daily tasks may impact the risk of developing chronic pain.

The study stated that “the outlined mechanisms, moderators, and vulnerabilities likely interact over time to influence the development of chronic pain and related outcomes in offspring of parents with chronic pain.” So by the time children are grown, these factors – or a subset of them – likely lead to a higher risk of developing long-lasting pain conditions. The authors’ hopes were that by highlighting these methods of transmission, they might open up new avenues for prevention amongst at-risk children.