Effect of sexual and physical abuse on symptom experiences in women with irritable bowel syndrome

Nurs Res. 2001 Jan-Feb;50(1):15-23. doi: 10.1097/00006199-200101000-00004.


Background: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic functional bowel disorder characterized by alterations in bowel patterns and abdominal pain. One factor that is conjectured to contribute to the onset of IBS is sexual and/or physical abuse in childhood or as an adult. This conjecture is supported by the increased prevalence of abuse experiences in persons with IBS when compared to healthy controls or those with organically-defined gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

Objectives: The purposes of the present study were to (a) compare the history of sexual and physical abuse in a sample of women with IBS to a sample of women without IBS and (b) to compare women with IBS who had sexual and physical abusive experiences to those who had not on GI symptoms, psychological distress, healthcare-seeking behavior, and physiological measures.

Methods: Data were collected from two samples of women (ages 18-40 years) with IBS and controls were recruited through community advertisements and letters from a health maintenance organization. Participants completed questionnaires (i.e., Sexual and Physical Abuse, Bowel Disease Questionnaire, Symptom Checklist-90-R) during an in-person interview and completed a symptom diary each night across one menstrual cycle. Cortisol and catecholamine levels were determined in morning urine samples on 6 days across the menstrual cycle.

Results: More women in the IBS group reported unwanted sexual contact during childhood relative to control women. Within the IBS group, minimal differences were found between those who had experienced abuse and those who had not. Women with IBS who had experienced abuse reported greater impact of GI symptoms on activity.

Conclusions: The prevalence of a history of childhood sexual abuse experiences is elevated among women with IBS. However, within women with IBS, those with a history of abuse do not appear to be different from those with no history of abuse on GI symptoms, psychological symptoms, or physiological arousal indicators.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Arousal
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / etiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • United States / epidemiology