Background: Physical symptoms are commonly presented for treatment in the absence of physical pathology. This study tests predictions arising from the theory that childhood sexual abuse leads to emotional distress, illness orientation and social dysfunction as adults and that one or more of these effects, in turn, leads to presentation of functional (i.e. unexplained) symptoms.
Methods: Two groups of patients with physical symptoms in the absence of organic disease (non-epileptic attack disorder or irritable bowel syndrome) were contrasted with organically diseased groups with comparable symptoms (epilepsy and Crohn's disease, respectively).
Results: Despite their contrasting clinical presentation, irritable bowel and non-epileptic attack groups were similar in recalling more sexual and physical abuse, as both children and adults, than their comparison groups. They were also similar in being more emotionally and socially disturbed and illness-orientated, but these putative mediating variables could not account for the relationship of abuse with presentation of functional symptoms.
Conclusions: Adults presenting functional neurological and abdominal symptoms are characterized by history of abuse. The current focus on childhood sexual abuse should be broadened to include sexual, and particularly physical, abuse in adulthood as well as childhood. The intervening processes that link abuse to somatization remain to be identified but are unlikely to include adult emotional and social disturbance or general illness-orientation.