Brain Injuries and Domestic Violence: Recognizing a Wide-Spread Problem

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Brain Injuries and Domestic Violence: Recognizing a Wide-Spread Problem

Brain Injuries and Family Violence


In recent years, media attention has been directed toward the devastating effects of brain injuries incurred during high-impact sports. Autopsies of the brains of football players, MMA fighters, hockey players, and boxers show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a type of brain degeneration caused by repeated blows to the head. People with CTE can experience a number of symptoms, including memory loss, impaired judgment, confusion, impulse control issues, aggression, depression, and suicidal ideation. CTE usually leads to progressive dementia.


Information about the effects of repeated blows to the head has led to a shift in thinking about some of these activities, with many parents pulling children out of sports programs, and new initiatives being established to help prevent repeated concussion in sports. The NFL paid 5,000 retired players who suffered concussions during their careers more than $900 million and has established a program that examines players for potential brain impairment.

Scientists have now begun to study victims of domestic violence who have suffered repetitive head trauma at the hands of their abusers. Many of these victims are showing classic symptoms of CTE.


Intimate Partner Violence in Canada


The World Health Organization identifies intimate partner violence (IPV) as a major global public health concern. It affects millions of people and has health, social, and economic consequences. IPV impacts people of all genders, ages, socioeconomic, racial, educational, ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. However, women account for the majority of people who experience this form of violence, which is most often perpetrated by men.

A Canadian survey found that 79% of victims of IPV were women, and, of all women who had been involved in an intimate partner relationship, 23% reported having experienced physical abuse. Women exposed to physical abuse are more likely to have low birth-weight babies, more likely to contract HIV or other sexually-transmitted diseases, twice as likely to experience depression as other women, and more likely to be murdered.


Effects of CTE


Victims of domestic abuse suffer a wide variety of injuries, and the difficulty of dealing with a violent partner can also cause or exacerbate a number of stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, asthma, and IBS. Blows to the head often result in concussion, or traumatic brain injury (TBI). In fact, violence is the third major cause of traumatic brain injury, after falls and motor vehicle accidents. Severe TBIs can constitute a catastrophic injury or can even lead to death, but most times a mild concussion will resolve after several weeks. However, researchers have shown that even slight blows to the head, if they occur frequently enough, can result in long-term neurodegenerative damage. 


The New York Times describes it this way: “Brain injuries are like earthquakes. In a major quake like the one in San Francisco in 1906 — say, a severe brain injury involving fractures, hemorrhages or penetrating wounds — bridges go down and buildings collapse. The city is devastated. But mild brain injuries are smaller quakes: Books fall off shelves; vases are broken. It’s harder to survey the damage and easy to miss what’s broken, but something is clearly wrong.”


Most of the research regarding CTE has been done on men: professional athletes and soldiers. Yet those who work with victims of IPV know that many women have taken more blows to the head than football players, and without the protection of helmets. (In addition, women’s brains are thought to be more vulnerable to concussion.) In 1990, a British doctor documented his findings in the autopsy of a woman who was known to have endured many years of domestic violence. Her brain resembled that of a “punch-drunk” boxer, with tangles of tau and beta amyloid proteins associated with neurodegeneration. In recent years, doctors have begun to recognize the problem, but research on women’s brains is still rare.


Women who have experienced IPV may present symptoms similar to the ones outlined above, or others such as severe headaches and nausea, mouth pain, and “brain fog.” They may suffer from chronic dizziness, hearing problems and blurred vision; some develop seizures or strokes. A 2002 study found that the extent of damage suffered by many domestic violence survivors “would make it difficult to think through or cope with the complex, often formidable organizational tasks required for battered women to stop the violence, disengage from violent partners and/or establish independent lives.”


Finding Help


If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, this website can help you to find services in your region of Canada. (If you are in an emergency situation, please call 911.) If you are experiencing symptoms such as the ones described above, consult with a physician and mention any head trauma you have suffered. In addition to criminal charges against an abuser, survivors of domestic violence may also be able to take civil action. Meet with a personal injury lawyer; an initial consultation with a personal injury lawyer is free, and you can learn more about your options.