One in four women experiences severe physical violence in an intimate relationship, according to an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But long after the violence has stopped, serious medical problems persist. A recent study shows that women who have been in abusive situations are at risk of lingering physical ailments, like migraines and gastrointestinal disease, and of mental conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Women who left their abusers five, 10, even 20 years ago and believed they had closed that chapter of their lives now face far higher than normal rates of chronic health problems, including arthritis and hormonal disorders, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, chronic pain, severe headaches and irritable bowel syndrome. As a result, these women spend nearly 20 percent more money on medical care than other women. Annual U.S. medical costs attributable to domestic violence, including years-old assaults that still cause health problems, range from $25 billion to $59 billion, according to a 2008 study funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of the damage is from old physical injuries, some from the chronic stress of living in terror for too long.
These findings were a surprise even to researchers who are exploring the DV-chronic illness connection.
"When I started this work more than a decade ago, we knew that women who experienced violence were at higher risk of developing chronic diseases like asthma but our understanding of the bio-logical link was limited," says Michele Black, an epidemiologist at the CDC who was the lead author of a landmark 2011 report on DV-related illness. "Now we're beginning to understand why that might be. A woman in a violent relationship is often on high alert: She may be frightened about being killed or worried about her kids; if she tries to get away, she may be stalked. All that stress is really toxic. There's no organ that's immune. Your whole body is at risk."
On The Daily Circuit, we look at what scientists are learning and how to intervene earlier to prevent such chronic effects.
If you've come through a violent relationship, do you find that you're experiencing chronic medical problems long after the abuse ended? How are you handling it today? Contribute your stories in the comments below.