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Revista Dor

Print version ISSN 1806-0013

Rev. dor vol.13 no.3 São Paulo July/Sept. 2012 



Depressive disorder and fibromyalgia: association to early life stress. Case report*



Sandra Odebrecht Vargas NunesI; Luciana Vargas Alves NunesI; Juliana Brum MoraesII; Vivian UemuraII

IAssociate Professor of Psychiatrics, State University of Londrina (UEL). Londrina, PR, Brazil
IIResident in Psychiatrics, State University of Londrina (UEL). Londrina, PR, Brazil

Correspondence to




BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES:  The association between depression, fibromyalgia and child abuse suggests that they divide the model of developmental traumatology. This study aimed at presenting a case of depressive disorder and fibromyalgia, associated to child abuse, as well as at discussing causes and consequences of both diagnoses.
CASE REPORT: Female patient, 54 years old, with fibromyalgia and recurrent depressive disorder, current severe episode, without psychotic symptoms, with somatic symptoms for approximately six months.  With history of negative childhood events with loss of affective relationship, problems related to alleged child abuse and frightening childhood experience.
CONCLUSION:  Early life stress may be the causal factor of painful symptoms in depression and fibromyalgia.

Keywords: Child development, Depressive disorder, Fibromyalgia.




Fibromyalgia (FM) is a clinical entity characterized by chronic pain lasting more than three months, presence of 11 out of 18 hypersensitive points referred as trigger points, and diffuse pain. It is more prevalent among females and is associated to insomnia, fatigue and psychological stress1.

The prevalence of depression varies from 49% to 80% in FM. Depression worsens social and emotional functionality and the quality of life of FM patients2.

In addition, history of child abuse has been found both in adults with FM3 and in adults with depressive disorder4.

Child maltreatment may bring consequences to adult life, such as: heart ischemic disease, cancer, irritable colon disease, chronic lung disease, FM, mood disorders, dietary disorders, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, post-traumatic stress, infertility, suicide behavior, learning deficit and sleep disorders5.

Children born in stressing environments may change their neuropsychological structures as a way to adapt to toxic childhood experiences. Structural consequences of child maltreatment include corpus callosum, left neocortex, hyppocampus and amygdala abnormalities, and reprogramming of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA)6.

Exposing developing brain to stress results in hyperfunctioning amygdala, decreased hyppocampus activity with altered negative feedback in glucocorticoid receptors, hypofunctioning dopaminergic mesocorticolimbic system and HPA axis hyperactivation7.

Traumatology development model explains how early life stress leads to permanent developing brain modifications, with changes in neurotransmitters and hormones modulating the neuronal migration development processes, differentiation, synaptic proliferation which may affect the developing brain8.

This study aimed at observing the association of early life stress to depressive disorder and to fibromyalgia, in addition to biological stress changes and relationships with depression and pain.



Female patient, 54 years old, Caucasian, married, housewife and Catholic. Born and raised in Paraná. For approximately 6 months, patient is waking up sad, anguished, with generalized pain and sensation that she will be unable to do was she has to do. She reported that for six months she spends most part of the day in bed or sitting and started crying more than normal.

She feels worse in the morning, has difficult to stand up, and does everything with major effort; she feels the body heavy as lead, perceives everything as nuisance, nothing is enjoyable and she does not have strength even to take a bath. She feels herself unable to chat and to do the services of the home. In the afternoon she feels better and is able to perform minor activities.

She reports frequent awakenings during the night; she wakes up around four o'clock in the morning and is no longer able to sleep due to pain. She brood things of the past with ideas of guilt and worthlessness. She believes that dying would relief her suffering. Food has no longer taste; she has difficulties to eat and has lost 4 kg in the last month.

Pain in the back, shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, nape and head has worsened in the last six months. She has difficulties to perform normal activities and started to feel more tired with minor tasks, such as climbing stairs or carrying a box, and when doing the services of the home. She used to do manual work, but has abandoned due to pain which does not improve with common analgesics.

She describes an unhappy childhood. She would take care of home duties and of smaller siblings since very early because she was the oldest of six siblings. She studied until high school with good performance.

Patient refers that her drunken father would abused the family and threatened to kill the mother and children and so patient and siblings would run away and sleep outside home. Her father was denounced by neighbors for having physically abused the patient and since then she and her siblings started to be monitored by a tutelary council.

At 13 years of age her mother died and after this her father's violence has turned against her. Her adolescence was marked by several migraine crises. She married at 20 years of age and reported that her husband is sympathetic, but has lost sexual desire. She has three children, had postpartum depression episodes similar to current episodes, however of lower intensity.

Smoker since 18 years of age, she smokes 40 cigarettes a day being the first morning cigarette the most pleasant; she smokes more frequently in the morning. She denies alcohol and illicit drugs abuse or dependence. According to patient, her mother has probably died from depression because she stopped eating and became very weak.

Her father was alcoholic and died from the consequences of alcohol. She has two sisters who are being treated for depression.

At mental evaluation patient was alert, with preserved temporo-spatial orientation. Cooperative attitude, psychomotor retardation. Her mood is depressed, her affection is congruent. Thinking processes are logic with ideas of guilt and suicide ideation. She presents with anhedonia, anorexia, terminal insomnia, low libido, generalized pain which worsens in the morning. Her hands are unquiet and she has pain expressions at any movement.

Physical evaluation has shown no joint heat, redness or movement limitation. Normal muscle strength. Presence of 11 trigger points in cervical and scapular-humeral regions, arms, knees and lumbar region.

Patient had signs and symptoms compatible with clinical criteria for the following diagnoses, according to International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10): Recurrent Depressive Disorder, severe current episode, without psychotic symptoms, with somatic symptoms (F33.21), Tobacco Dependence (17.2) and Fibromyalgia (M79). Among contextual factors she presented: family history of drug abuse (Z81.1), loss of affective relationships during childhood (Z61.0), problems related to alleged physical abuse of the child (Z61.6), frightening personal experience in childhood (Z61.7). She presented labor incapacity and incapacity to perform the services of the home.

After three months under antidepressant duloxetine and psychotherapy, she improved her depressed mood, was more interested and pleased in dressing up and making up the home, and had more energy to start the services of the home. She could keep attention to TV programs and maintain conversation with other people. Her appetite and sleep have improved, she does not wake up numerous times and pains were attenuated.

Patient was diagnosed with depressive disorder associated to FM and to negative childhood events. Patient's family has history of depressive disorder and alcohol dependence.

The prevalence of depression among FM patients is 32.9% for mild depression, 21.4% for moderate depression and 12.9% for severe depression2. FM is not only associated to more severity of current depression, but also to depressive disorder along life and family history of depression. These findings suggest that FM could be a depression variant9. In this clinical case, the patient had problems related to negative childhood events, such as: 1) loss of affective relationship in childhood (mother's death), 2) problems related to abuse (father abused the patient and was denounced by neighbors to the tutelary council), 3) frightening personal experience in childhood (witnessed death threats to her mother). The relationship between stressing situations in early life and the development of depression in adult life is well established. Early life trauma in genetically vulnerable individuals may trigger a depressive episode10.

Results of handling versus maternal separation experiments with animals have reported that those handled had more binding capacity to hippocampus glucocorticoids receptors in adult life and were protected from the noxious effects of hypersensitive HPA axis11. Children maltreatment causes the permanent inactivation of the HPA axis, resulting in cortisol changes and hippocampus damage12.

Decreased hippocampus volume in neuroimaging was observed in women victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Excessive HPA axis activation caused by stress produces a less efficient negative feedback system in the hippocampus resulting in decreased number and sensitivity of hippocampus glucocorticoid receptors13.

Early life stress is related to HPA axis activation leading to changes in the amygdala-hippocampus complex. Hippocampus and prefrontal cortex inhibit HPA axis and the amygdala activates the HPA axis. Cortisol changes related to early life stress are a consequence of increased CRF levels and of increased HPA axis sensitivity to negative feedback14.

HPA axis is abnormal in depressive disorder patients15, as well as in FM patients16 and in depressive patients. HPA axis changes contribute to changes in the neurotransmission of serotoninergic and noradrenergic pathways, which are closely related to the development of depressive and painful symptoms15.

The presence of serotoninergic and noradrenergic pathways in the pain descending inhibitory pathway promotes pain perception modulation. If depression has decreased such neurotransmitters, there will be decrease in pain inhibition mediated by the spinal pathway, leading to further painful perception.

Neuroimaging changes show that chronic pain is followed by decreased gray matter in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex bilaterally and in the right thalamus17. Depressive disorder also leads to decreased density of prefrontal cortex gray matter18.

The system proposed as pain descending inhibitory system consists of central nervous system areas (CNS) interconnected by fibers going from cortical and diencephalic systems to the periaqueductal (PAG) and periventricular gray matter, and which are rich in encephalins and opioid receptors and, from there, they continue to areas of the rostroventral bulb, especially nucleus magnus of raphe (NMR) and adjacent nuclei, which, in turn, send serotoninergic and noradrenergic fibers, via dorsolateral funiculus, to spinal cord dorsal horn and the bulb, ending especially in laminae I, II and V, and inhibiting nociceptive neurons, interneurons and ascending tracts which project rostrally, including spinothalamic, spinoreticular and spinal-midbrain tracts.

The relationship between early life stress, physical, sexual, emotional abuse and negligence, and depression may be attributed to a dysfunctional HPA axis response. During acute stress, there are biochemical body adaptive responses, such as change in adrenocortical hormones secretion, especially cortisol, caused by decreased number and sensitivity of brain glucocorticoid receptors, with impairment of negative feedback.

Hippocampus is the brain structure responsible for episodic memory and learning, with high density of glucocorticoid receptors and persistent postnatal neurogenesis, which could be related to cognitive deficits secondary to hippocampus or prefrontal cortex malfunctioning20. When stressing experiences are very extreme or chronic, increased cortisol may be noxious, changing endocrine responses and brain structures functioning21. The impact of early adverse experiences also changes amygdala functioning, hyperactivating it. This brain structure is part of the neural circuitry which has regulatory effects on the HPA axis22.

The presence of serotoninergic and noradrenergic pathways in pain descending inhibitory pathway promotes painful perception modulation. If depression has decreased such neurotransmitters, there will be a decrease in pain inhibition mediated by the spinal pathway, leading to further painful perception.

The relationship between early life stress, depression and pain is summarized in figure 1. Early life stress would activate the HPA axis leading to changes in the amygdala-hippocampus complex. Hippocampus and prefrontal cortex inhibit HPA axis and the amygdala activates HPA axis. Decreased pain inhibition by serotoninergic and noradrenergic pathways.



Approximately two decades after the establishment of FM diagnostic criteria, there is still no consensus about its causes. The hypothesis of central pain processing deregulation and its underlying neurological mechanisms is gaining force. Pain amplification as etiologic FM mechanism encompasses from abnormal activation of postsynaptic N-Methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA) receptors in spinal cord dorsal horn to the deregulation of pain modulation by the descending inhibitory system. NMDA receptors are important for neuronal excitotoxicity and plasticity22.



Early life stress may contribute to adult life diseases, such as depressive disorder and FM. Early life stress is related to HPA axis activation leading to changes in the amygdala-hippocampus complex. Hippocampus and prefrontal cortex inhibit HPA axis, while the amygdala activates HPA axis. Decreased pain inhibition by serotoninergic and noradrenergic pathways is implied as the causal factor for painful symptoms in depression and FM.

So, it is to be expected that increased norepinephrine and serotonin neurotransmission may be effective to control pain.

Noradrenergic and serotoninergic effects on pain descending inhibitory system related to stress and depression may bring the possibility of using new drugs.



Early life stress may be implied as causal factor for painful symptoms in depression and FM.



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Correspondence to:
Sandra Odebrecht Vargas Nunes, M.D.
Av. Adhemar de Barros, 625
86050-190 Londrina, PR.
Phone: 55 (43) 3323-8210

Submitted in November 28, 2011.
Accepted for publication in May 08, 2012.



* Received from the State University of Londrina (UEL). Londrina, PR.

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