Words Can Hurt -- Women Who Are Physically Or Verbally Abused More Likely To Suffer Health Problems

October 07, 1998

Women subjected to "low-severity" violence -- shoves, grabs or threats from someone they love -- are more likely to suffer physical and psychological health problems than women in more peaceful relationships, a Johns Hopkins study has found.

Overall, the abused women had more physical symptoms than women who were never abused. They were more likely to suffer diarrhea, loss of appetite and abdominal pain, and also had a higher incidence of vaginal discharge.(pending)

"Clinicians, researchers and public health workers should be aware that even low levels of violence may be associated with health problems in women," says Jeanne McCauley, M.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and a physician advisor for the Johns Hopkins Medical Services Corp. "Women tend to deny problems in their relationships, but health care workers should be savvy enough not to go along with that denial."

The study, published in the October issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, used anonymous questionnaires to survey women who had medical visits scheduled at four community-based primary care clinics in the Baltimore area. The survey questions looked at the presence or absence of 22 physical symptoms occurring in the prior six months; psychological distress; alcohol and drug abuse; childhood abuse or past adult violence; current violence; and past medical history. Seventy percent of the abused women were white and about half were married. They ranged in age, education levels and socioeconomic status.

Of the 1,931 women surveyed, 79 (4.1 percent) met the criteria for "high-severity" violence within the preceding year -- being hit, slapped, kicked, burned, choked, threatened or hurt with a weapon, or forced to engage in sexual activities. Forty-seven (2.4 percent) women experienced low-severity violence -- being pushed or grabbed, or having someone threaten to hurt them or someone they love; 1,257 (65.1 percent) reported no violence; and the remaining 548 (28.4 percent) reported prior childhood and/or adult violence.

Patients with low and high levels of violence had higher levels of current or past drug or alcohol abuse and were more likely to have a substance-abusing partner than women who had never experienced violence.

The study also found that:

* Women in the high-violence group were more likely to have had a suicide attempt at some point in their lives.
* Women in the high-violence group were slightly more likely to have had an emergency room visit in the previous six months.
* Women in either violence group were slightly more likely to have had a miscarriage at some point in their lives.

The study's other authors were David E. Kern, M.D.; Ken Kolodner, Sc.D.; Leonard R. Derogatis, Ph.D.; and Eric B. Bass, M.D., M.P.H.

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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