Jan. 5, 2009 -- Experiencing serious trauma during childhood may increase a
person's risk for developing
chronic fatigue syndrome later in life, a new study suggests.
In the study from the CDC and Atlanta's Emory University, patients with
fatigue syndrome (CFS) reported much higher levels of childhood trauma than
people without the disorder.
Severe childhood trauma -- including sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and
neglect -- was associated with a sixfold increase in CFS.
Chronic fatigue syndrome remains a poorly understood disorder, and the
suggestion that early-life stresses play an important role in the disease
Harvard Medical School professor and CFS expert Anthony L. Komaroff, FACP,
did not take part in the new study. But he tells WebMD that the findings make a
strong case for childhood trauma altering brain chemistry in a way that makes
some people more vulnerable to CFS.
"These researchers are definitely not saying that early-life trauma is the
cause of chronic fatigue syndrome," he says. "To say that something is a risk
factor is very different from saying that it is the cause."
The newly reported study builds on previous research from the CDC and Emory
team, which first suggested the link between early-life trauma and an increased
risk for CFS.
CDC estimates suggest that as many as 2.5% of American adults have CFS, even
though many have not been diagnosed.
In that study, researchers examined and interviewed 43 CFS patients and 60
people without the disorder living in Wichita, Kan.
Self-reported childhood trauma was associated with a three- to eightfold
increased risk for CFS, with the highest risk seen in patients who had suffered
from more than one early-life trauma.
The new study involved 113 CFS patients and 124 people without the disorder
living in urban, suburban, or rural Georgia.
In addition to interviews to determine whether study participants had
experienced childhood trauma, all participants underwent screening for
posttraumatic stress disorder.
The interviews revealed that:
62% of CFS patients reported being the victims of severe childhood traumas
compared to 24% of study participants without CFS.
33% of CFS patients reported a childhood history of sexual abuse, compared
to nearly 11% of study participants without CFS.
33% of CFS patients reported being the victims of emotional abuse, compared
to 7% of study participants without CFS.
The researchers also tested all participants for levels of the hormone
cortisol, which is associated with stress and the
so-called "fight or flight" response.
Low cortisol levels may indicate that the body does not respond to stress
normally, CFS researcher William Reeves, MD, of the CDC tells WebMD.
Reeves and colleagues found reduced cortisol levels in the CFS patients who
had experienced childhood traumas, but not in CFS patients who did not report
early-life exposure to trauma.
This suggests that early trauma may "rewire" the brain in a way that makes
people more vulnerable to developing chronic fatigue syndrome in adulthood, he
says, adding that the finding could have implications for diagnosis and
"We know that cognitive behavioral therapy works for many people with CFS,
and this is especially true for people who have a history of childhood trauma,"