Abuse-related posttraumatic stress disorder and alterations of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in women with chronic pelvic pain

Christine Heim, Ulrike Ehlert, Jürgen P. Hanker, Dirk H. Hellhammer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

257 Scopus citations


Objective: Although numerous organic conditions may cause chronic pelvic pain (CPP), diagnostic laparoscopy reveals a normal pelvis in many patients with CPP. However, psychological studies yield a high frequency of psychopathology and increased prevalences of chronic stress and traumatic life events, ie, sexual and physical abuse, in women with CPP, suggesting a relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and CPP. As chronic stress and PTSD have been associated with specific alterations of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, we explored stress history, psychopathology and HPA axis alterations in women with CPP. Method: We recruited 16 patients with CPP and 14 painfree, infertile controls from a general hospital where diagnostic laparoscopy was performed. Psychological assessment included standardized interviews on clinical symptoms, abuse experiences and major life events as well as psychometric testing for PTSD- like symptoms and depression. Endocrinological evaluation involved determinations of diurnal salivary cortisol levels and hormonal responses to a corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) stimulation test (100 μg human CRF) and a low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (0.5 mg). Results: We observed increased prevalences of abuse experiences and PTSD in women with CPP as well as a higher total number of major life events, whereas the mean extent of depression was within the normal range. With respect to endocrine measures, women with CPP demonstrated normal to low diurnal salivary cortisol levels, normal plasma-adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), but reduced salivary cortisol levels in the CRF stimulation test, and an enhanced suppression of salivary cortisol by dexamethasone. Conclusion: Women with CPP demonstrate HPA axis alterations, that partly parallel and partly contrast neuroendocrine correlates of PTSD, but show marked similarity to findings in patients with other stress-related bodily disorders. These findings suggest that a lack of protective properties of cortisol may be of relevance for the development of bodily disorders in chronically stressed or traumatized individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-318
Number of pages10
JournalPsychosomatic medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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