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MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS
NEWS

Study Finds Childhood Abuse Raises the Risk for MS in Women

Posted on July 05, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Simi Burn, PharmD

  • Women who experienced abuse during their childhood may have a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life, according to a recent study.
  • Researchers found the risks for developing MS were higher among women who’d experienced more than one type of abuse.
  • Abuse and other forms of childhood trauma are also linked with depression, a common symptom among people with MS.

Women who experienced abuse as children may be at a higher risk of developing MS later in life, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Women who experienced childhood abuse are also more likely to experience depression, a common symptom among people with MS.

The cohort study followed 77,997 Norwegian mothers to track the development of MS. Women filled out questionnaires during pregnancy about their history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) before the age of 18 years. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, including violence and abuse. The women were surveyed between 1999 and 2008 about humiliation, threat, physical abuse, and sexual abuse they experienced in childhood.

When the researchers followed up in 2018, they found that 300 of the women had developed MS. Researchers found that the women who’d experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse as children were more likely to have developed MS.

Among their findings, researchers determined that:

  • Women who experienced sexual abuse during their childhood were found to be 65 percent more likely to develop MS than women who hadn’t.
  • Those who endured mental abuse as children had a 40 percent higher risk of developing the condition.
  • Physical abuse during childhood was associated with a 31 percent higher risk of MS later in life.
  • Women who experienced two of the abuse categories in childhood had a 66 percent higher chance of developing MS, and those who experienced all three categories had a 93 percent higher risk.

MyMSTeam members have shared their experiences and questions about childhood trauma and risk of multiple sclerosis. One member asked, “I had trauma at a young age and kept it to myself until a year ago, now my MS has become a racehorse. Has anyone else heard about this?” Another member asked, “My mom thinks my MS is due to trauma in life. Has everyone been through trauma? I know I have.”

Scientists don’t fully understand the causes of MS. It likely involves a complex combination of both genetic and environmental factors, which may include emotional abuse or trauma. Trauma and stressful life events have been associated with an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. Stressful life events, such as family or workplace conflict, marriage, or illness of family members, may be connected to an increased risk of developing MS. According to the evidence, the link between stressful life events and MS is stronger in women than men, but researchers do not know the reason for this discrepancy.

The Links Between Depression, Trauma, and MS

Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness or worthlessness over an extended period of time. Depression is a common symptom of MS. Additionally, people who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to have depression.

ACEs are a risk factor for depression. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) theorizes that preventing ACEs may reduce the number of adults with depression by as much as 44 percent.

MyMSTeam members have shared their experiences with depression:

  • “Unfortunately, stress is taking a toll on my relationships as well as my outlook. I feel myself sinking into a depression and I am trying to fight it.”
  • “I have been up and down with depression and MS keeps flaring up. But I am hanging in there.”
  • “I have been through depression linked primarily to MS, but I am well pleased that my doctor has controlled it for me. I talk openly about depression, as mental health issues are far more acceptable in public than they used to be.”

The link between depression and MS may have to do with chronic illness in general — rates of depression are higher in people with chronic illnesses. There are also neurological reasons for the link between MS and depression, related to brain changes the disease causes that affect neurotransmitters and alter mood. People living with MS who have higher levels of immune system inflammation in their brain are more likely to be depressed. Furthermore, some disease-modifying treatments for MS cause depression as a side effect.

There is still much to learn about the links between depression, trauma, and MS. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, talk to your health care provider. There are many forms of therapy and different classes of medication that can help. Reach out for emotional support from friends and family or members of MyMSTeam, who know what it’s like to live with MS.

Find Your MS Team

On MyMSTeam, the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones, more than 188,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

Did you experience trauma as a child and later develop MS? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by posting on MyMSTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Simi Burn, PharmD is a seasoned pharmacist with experience in long-term care, geriatrics, community pharmacy, management, herbal medicine, and holistic health.. Learn more about her here.

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