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Domestic Abuse Survivors Twice As Likely of Contracting Long-Term Illness

Women who have suffered domestic abuse are twice at risk of contracting long-term illnesses which cause extensive pain and acute exhaustion, a new study has found.

The report, which was carried out by the University of Birmingham and Warwick, discovered women who have been subjected to abuse from partners are almost twice as likely to develop fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome than people who have not.

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition which causes pain all over the body or just in the back and neck, extreme sensitivity and tiredness.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is also a long-term medical condition with symptoms which include debilitating fatigue after physical exertion, muscle and joint pain, sensitivity to light and other persistent symptoms which constrain the capacity to do normal everyday tasks.

The first of its kind study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, looked at GP records dating between 1995 and 2017 of 18,547 women who had suffered domestic abuse compared to 74,188 who had not.

These are difficult illnesses to live with. Domestic abuse is a global public health issue, with as many as one in three women affected worldwide. 

Recent UK estimates suggest that 27 per cent of women have experienced some form of domestic abuse, with a large proportion of these cases expected to be women who have suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Considering the prevalence of domestic abuse, and the fact that patients experiencing fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome often face delays in diagnosis due to a limited understanding generally of how these conditions are caused, it is important for clinicians to bear in mind that women who have survived abuse are at a greater risk of these conditions.

Dr Joht Singh Chandan, one of the report’s authors

Dr Chandan, who works for both the University of Birmingham and Warwick, said there were three key reasons why domestic abuse can cause fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome:

  1. stress suffered during and after the abusive relationship
  2. the actual physical, emotional and/or psychological abuse can cause inflammation in the body
  3. the mental health issues that can come about as a result of abuse are a risk factor

Helping Healthcare Practice

The doctor, who has an interest in public health, said he hoped the research would change healthcare practice and help fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome be more quickly diagnosed in domestic abuse survivors.

Birmingham University published research in June which found women who endure domestic abuse are three times more likely to develop a serious mental illness.

There had been uncertainty surrounding whether the mental illness or the domestic abuse came first prior to the study which managed to establish the correlation goes in each direction.

Survivors of domestic abuse can experience immense physiological and psychological stress. 

The changes that happen in the body as a result of such stress can lead to a multitude of poor health outcomes such as what we see in our study here.

However, more research needs to be done to establish the biopsychosocial pathways that cause this link between abuse and these types of health conditions. This is a very complex relationship and it is important to emphasise that not all women who have been abused will develop fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, and that having these conditions does not mean there has been domestic abuse in the past.

Professor Julie Taylor, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Nursing

Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, of the University of Birmingham’s Department of Economics and Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, said the research indicates the “costs of abuse” are even greater than previously realised.

He said: “The higher incidence of long-term illnesses, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, for abused women implies the existence of an additional hidden cost to society that we need to understand better.”


If you live in Warwickshire and are affected by domestic abuse, you can contact Refuge, the domestic abuse support service provider on 0800 408 1552. In an emergency dial 999.

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