Sexual and physical abuse and gastrointestinal illness

Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1995;208:90-6. doi: 10.3109/00365529509107768.


Background: Clinicians are becoming aware of the increased attention paid to the occurrence of sexual and physical abuse in our society and its consequences. However, only recently has attention been paid to their association with medical and particularly gastrointestinal illnesses.

Methods and results: Recently, we investigated the frequency of sexual or physical abuse among female patients in our gastroenterology clinic, and their association with health status. Of 206 women, 89 (44%) reported some type of sexual or physical abuse in their lifetime. We also found that patients diagnosed with functional GI disorders when compared with those with organic diagnoses reported a significantly greater frequency of sexual (53% versus 37%) and physical abuse (13% versus 2%). Of these, 59% had never discussed the abuse experience outside their families, a third had never told anyone, and only 17% of their GI physicians were aware of this history. We also found that abuse history led to a poorer health outcome: more severe GI pain and a higher frequency of pelvic pain (16% versus 6%), more non-GI symptoms (7.1 versus 5.8), more physician visits in the previous six months (4.2 versus 3.3) and more lifetime operations (2.8 versus 2.0).

Conclusions: In a GI referral practice, abuse history is a hidden factor that is associated with poorer adjustment to illness, greater symptom severity and higher health care use rates. Since the publication of these data, several groups have supported our findings and obtained additional new data on associating factors and possible mechanisms of symptom generation. This paper will: (i) review this epidemiologic data, (ii) propose hypotheses about their association, (iii) offer suggestions to identify this information in a sensitive and supportive manner, and (iv) discuss how to initiate referral for ancillary psychosocial care.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child Abuse*
  • Child Abuse, Sexual
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders* / diagnosis