Epidemiological Study Disclosed A Relationship Between Childhood Abuse And Later Medical Disorders In Women

This is the first community study which specifically addresses the relationship between childhood abuse and vulnerability to illness with reliable methods. It derives from the collaboration of New Zealand (University of Dunnedin) and Italian (University of Modena) investigators coordinated by Professor Sarah Romans.

There have been many studies documenting adverse psychiatric consequences for people who have experienced childhood and adult sexual and physical abuse. These include posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and probably some personality disorders or trait abnormalities. Much less is known about the links between abuse and physical/psychosomatic conditions in adult life. Hints of causal links are evident in the literature discussing headache, lower back pain, pelvic pain and irritable bowel syndrome.

These studies are not definitive as they use clinic-based samples. This study used interview data with a random community sample of New Zealand women, half of whom reported childhood sexual abuse and half who did not. Details about childhood physical abuse and adult abuse were also collected in a two-phase study. Complex relationships were found, as abuses tended to co-occur.

Seven of 18 potentially relevant medical conditions emerged as significantly increased in women with one or more types of abuse. These were chronic fatigue, bladder problems, headache including migraine, asthma, diabetes and heart problems. Several of these associations with abuse are previously unreported. In this random community sample, a number of chronic physical conditions were found more often in women who reported different types of sexual and physical abuse, both in childhood and in adult life.

The causal relationships cannot be studied in a cross-sectional retrospective design, but immature coping strategies and increased rates of dissociation appeared important only in chronic fatigue and headache, suggesting that these are not part of the causal pathway between abuse experiences and the other later physical health problems. This finding and the low co-occurrence of the identified physical conditions suggest relative specificity rather than a general vulnerability to psychosomatic conditions in women who have suffered abuses. Each condition may require separate further study.

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