Updated 07 August 2015

Subtle signs of domestic violence

Physical warning signs of domestic abuse can be picked up during health care visits to the doctor – things like irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia.


Fact: South Africa has the highest rate of domestic violence in the world. It is estimated that every six hours a woman is killed by her intimate partner in this country.

Feelings of powerlessness

The South African Medical Research Council (MRC) has found that 40 percent of men have hit their partners, and one in four men has raped a woman. The degree of acceptance or feelings of powerlessness by women is reflected by the fact that while twenty five percent of South African women are raped, only two percent of those raped by a partner report the fact to the police.

Read: The Domestic Violence Act

It is a sad fact that statistically South African women have more to fear from people they know than from strangers.   

However, South Africa is by no means an isolated case, and a recent study by the University of Michigan has found that one in five American men admits to violence towards their spouse or partner.  A surprising finding by the same study was that physical warning signs of domestic abuse could be picked up during health care visits to the doctor – things like irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia.

Bruises and broken bones

The more obvious signs of physical abuse like bruises and, in extreme cases, broken bones are easy to observe, but there are also more subtle signs that may have other causes and are mostly not linked to an abusive relationship. It may also be difficult to separate these physical manifestations from psychological symptoms of domestic violence, like the following examples:

- Quiet, passive behaviour

- Signs of depression like avoidance of eye contact and crying

- Anxiety

- Chronic fatigue

- “Battered woman syndrome”, much like post-traumatic stress disorder

- Substance abuse – prescription drugs, alcohol or illegal drugs

'Noninjury' complaints

The ongoing stress experienced by victims of domestic violence can lead to “noninjury”
medical complaints that are not directly caused by the abuse experienced by the victim.
These symptoms are caused by a psychological reaction to abuse and may also present in cases of psychological violence where the perpetrator never lays a finger on the victim. They are the result of the constant stress and tension of being in an abusive relationship.

Read: Abuse has lasting affect on women

Some typical “noninjury” medical complaints experienced by victims of domestic abuse include:

- Headaches

- Asthma  

- Gastrointestinal symptoms

- Insomnia or restless sleep  

- Genital soreness

- Pelvic pain

- Back pain

- Painful sex

- Choking sensations

- Palpitations

- Neck pain

Read more:

Mental problems linked to abuse
Prayer helps domestic abuse victims
Domestic scars tell stories  

Violence Against Women in South Africa Fact Sheet
The World Post
South African Medical Research Council

The South African

emedicine health
Psych Central

Image: Young woman crying from Shutterstock

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