The association between exposure to domestic abuse in women and the development of syndromes indicating central nervous system sensitization: a retrospective cohort study using UK primary care records

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Background: Domestic abuse is a global public health issue. The association between the development of central sensitivity syndromes (CSS) and previous exposure to domestic abuse has been poorly understood particularly within European populations. Methods: A retrospective cohort study using the ‘The Health Improvement Network,’ (UK primary care medical records) between 1st January 1995–31st December 2018. 22,604 adult women exposed to domestic abuse were age matched to 44,671 unexposed women. The average age at cohort entry was 36 years and the median follow-up was 2.5 years. The outcomes of interest were the development of a variety of syndromes which demonstrate central nervous system sensitization. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and temporomandibular joint disorder outcomes have been reported previously. Outcomes were adjusted for the presence of mental ill health. Results: During the study period, women exposed to domestic abuse experienced an increased risk of developing chronic lower back pain (adjusted incidence rate ratio [aIRR] 2.28; 95% CI 1.85–2.80), chronic headaches (aIRR 3.15; 95% CI 1.07–9.23), irritable bowel syndrome (aIRR 1.41; 95% CI 1.25–1.60) and restless legs syndrome (aIRR 1.89; 95% CI 1.44–2.48). However, no positive association was seen with the development of interstitial cystitis (aIRR 0.52; 95% CI 0.14–1.93), vulvodynia (aIRR 0.42; 95% CI 0.14–1.25) and myofascial pain syndrome (aIRR 1.01; 95% CI 0.28–3.61). Conclusion: This study demonstrates the need to consider a past history of domestic abuse in patients presenting with CSS; and also consider preventative approaches in mitigating the risk of developing CSS following exposure to domestic abuse. Significance: Domestic abuse is a global public health issue, with a poorly understood relationship with the development of complex pain syndromes. Using a large UK primary care database, we were able to conduct the first global cohort study to explore this further. We found a strong pain morbidity burden associated with domestic abuse, suggesting the need for urgent public health intervention to not only prevent domestic abuse but also the associated negative pain consequences.

Bibliographic note

Publisher Copyright: © 2021 The Authors. European Journal of Pain published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of European Pain Federation - EFIC ®.


Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of Pain
Early online date8 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Feb 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

Sustainable Development Goals