Kids who behave badly may wind up feeling the pain as adults.
Researchers who checked up on 45-year-olds whose parents and teachers said they were naughty as children were more likely to have chronic pain as adults.
"We found that we could identify children who were about twice as likely to report chronic widespread pain as adults, based on whatever their parents and teachers had said about their behavior when they were 7, 11 and 16," says Gary Macfarlane, an epidemiologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
The adult group that was twice as likely report pain had high "bad behavior" scores at all three checks. The research findings appear in the journal Rheumatology.
The results don't mean all adults in pain were bad kids. Macfarlane estimates that only about 1 in 20 adults in pain have a history of bad behavior.
In their work Macfarlane and colleagues mined a rich database from a study of all people born in the United Kingdom in a single week in 1958. When the children were 7, 11, and 16 years old, their parents and teachers filled out questionnaires about the children. Did they lie, cheat or steal? Were they withdrawn, or anxious? Did they bully other children? About 8,500 subjects were available for followup at age 45. They were asked if they had recently had any aches or pains that lasted a month or more.
Macfarlane says there are many possible reasons for the association between childhood behavior and chronic adult pain. Naughty kids may be more likely to grow up to have health conditions such as arthritis, for example. But he suspects a disruption in something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland are three parts of the body that produce hormones in response to stress and pain. Other studies have shown that the axis works differently in some adults with psychological conditions such as depression. Macfarlane and his colleagues are now studying the axis in children who've been exposed to stressful situations, such as severe illness, or loss of a parent.
Researchers who study the mind-body connection say the new study adds to the evidence from other, smaller studies. And Charles Raison, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at the Emory University School of Medicine, says finding a way to deal with really bad behavior may prevent some chronic pain in adults. But that study, he says, would be very hard to do, since you'd have to leave some children untreated, and you'd have to wait 30 or 40 years for the result.