The Physical Scars of Childhood Abuse Can Last a Lifetime

Adults who have survived childhood abuse are more likely to experience mental health problems than those who were not abused during their youth. Depression, anxiety, panic, posttraumatic stress, eating and food issues, and substance abuse are just some of the psychological conditions that these survivors face. Another consequence of childhood abuse is diminished physical health. Research has shown that negative psychological well-being decreases physical health and can lead to serious health problems, including hypertension and heart disease. But few studies have examined how specific types of childhood abuse affect physical health directly.

To address this gap in research, Cathy Spatz Widom, Ph.D., of the Psychology Department at John Jay College at the City University of New York recently conducted a study that sought to determine the link between three individual types of abuse and later physical health problems. Widom analyzed data from adults who had been abused prior to their 12th birthday. The average age of the participants was 41. Each participant underwent a complete physical examination and blood test in adulthood. Based on documented reports of the abuse, Widom compared how sexual abuse, neglect/maltreatment, and physical abuse in childhood affected the participants’ health in adulthood.

She found that the adults who had experienced neglect and maltreatment had poorer oral and visual health as well as impaired airflow and increased risk for diabetes. The adult survivors of sexual abuse were more likely than the other participants to develop oral health issues and hepatitis C. They also had higher rates of HIV and malnutrition. Those who had survived physical abuse were also at increased risk for malnutrition and diabetes. Although some of these conditions could be attributed to maladaptive coping techniques, such as smoking, drug or alcohol use, and poor nutrition, the findings clearly show that adults who have survived childhood abuse are still at increased risk for significant physical health problems. Widom believes that these findings have strong clinical implications. She said, “Understanding the mechanisms that place abused and neglected children at higher risk for these adult physical health outcomes will help focus these efforts.”

Widom, C. S., Czaja, S. J., Bentley, T., Johnson, M. S. (2012). A prospective investigation of physical health outcomes in abused and neglected children: New findings from a 30-year follow-up. American Journal of Public Health, 102.6, 1135-1144.

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  • nathan


    May 31st, 2012 at 12:56 AM

    one thing I was thinking about when I read about diminishing physical health in survivors is that they must have had these issues start soon after the abuse took must have heard of kids abused starting to have eating problems.well that could be a signal to watch out for too!

  • Cate


    May 31st, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    I had an ideal childhood so it is hard for me to imagine having one in which the emotional and physical scars from your experiences follow you for a lifetime. I have so many happy memories of my family; but I know that there are other people who do not have this kind of emotion when it comes to looking back on their childhoods. Many times I have relied on the things that I know my parents did when we were kids to help me make decisions with my own. To not have that to fall back on is hard to even fathom.

  • Stone K

    Stone K

    May 31st, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    I don’t think that people realize that harm that they can do to their children through hitting and with words too.

    You might be doing this to relieve some of the tension in yourself, but think about how much better it would feel to be a rational adult and talk over a solution with your child instead of swinging at them or with verbally abusive words.

  • Mallory


    June 1st, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    Even those scars and wounds that you don’t see, they can work a number on you. You may not even realize that these are the things that are holding you back, but if you were abused as a child, you wouldn’t believe how much holding on to those memories and that anger can bring you down.

  • Yankee four

    Yankee four

    March 15th, 2013 at 4:29 AM

    Im in my 40’s and my body is failing me.

    I come from a family with an alcoholic father and a tough as nails mother….both physically abused me as well as my 5 siblings. Being one of the youngest of 6 I had the added problem of having 4 older siblings that abused that would protect us when we were 2, 3, 4, 5 years old, then continued the cycle of abuse once they replied they were old enough to get away with it.

    I have torn rotator cuffs, from being yanked around as a child by one arm, multiple wrist and elbow injuries. I have scoliosis so when I was dropped 10ft on a marble floor at 9 yrs old and fractured my coccyx , it was the beginning of life-long back problems.

    I work in the medical field so back pain is something I have to live with, it’s not like you can take pain meds when your treating patient’s. And even so, with the addiction problems my siblings have, I have to believe we are predisposed to addiction.
    I’m OCD, controlled by an SSRI.

    Oddly enough the only medical professionals that have figured out the abuse were chiropractors and orthopedists who were able to tell by the X-rays that old fractures could have only occurred as a child, prior to growth plate fusion.

    I have forgiven my parents but, every time I have another medical issue hat can be directly traced to the physical abuse, I have no desire to have any type of relationship with them at all.


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