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A history of physical and/or sexual abuse is a frequent occurrence in patients referred for chronic gastrointestinal disorders and it may predispose to the development of functional gastrointestinal disorders, and multiple medical complaints. This study was aimed to determine: (a) prevalence of abuse history in Italian patients with chronic gastrointestinal disturbances, and (b) relationship between abuse history and clinical manifestations.

Subjects and methods. Consecutive gastrointestinal out-patients filled in a self-administered standardised questionnaire, made up of two separate sections: (1) a medical section enquiring on gastrointestinal and extra-gastrointestinal symptoms, and (2) a section on abuse enquiring on the presence and type of abuse suffered during their lifetime. Associations between number of symptoms and abuse history were evaluated using univariate and multivariate logistic models.

Results. Questionnaires were handed out to 260 patients; 13% of whom did not fill in the questionnaires. Functional gastrointestinal disorders were diagnosed in 72.5% of patients and organic gastrointestinal diseases in 27.5%. A total of 31% of patients with organic gastrointestinal diseases and 32% of those with functional gastrointestinal disorders referred to a history of sexual or physical abuse. Histories of physical plus sexual abuse, sexual abuse, childhood abuse and female gender, were statistically associated with an increased number of gastrointestinal and extra-gastrointestinal symptoms irrespective of functional or organic disorders, whereas there was no statistical association with physical abuse only. Furthermore, diagnosis of functional gastrointestinal disorders was associated with a significantly (p<0.001) greater number of gastrointestinal symptoms than the diagnosis of organic gastrointestinal diagnosis. A total of 10 patients met the diagnostic criteria of somatization disorder. Of these, eight reported a history of severe physical and sexual abuse that had occurred, in all but one, during childhood.

Conclusions. A history of physical and/or sexual abuse has a high prevalence in Italian patients with chronic gastrointestinal disorders, irrespective of organic or functional diagnosis. Abuse history has no relevant role in the pathogenesis of either functional or organic chronic gastrointestinal disorders but it can affect their clinical expression irrespective of functional or organic diagnosis. Severe physical and sexual abuse and childhood abuse were found in patients who met diagnostic criteria for somatization disorder, suggesting a role of abuse history in this subset of patients.

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