A 35-year-old woman presented to the emergency department (ED) with 2 black eyes, facial swelling, and other injuries (Figure 1). She said that she had been in an all-terrain vehicle accident the day before, in which she hit her face on the handlebar. She said she had lost consciousness for an unknown period and since the accident had experienced headache, dizziness, nausea, and pain over much of her body.
Physical examination revealed left lateral subconjunctival hemorrhage (Figure 2) and ecchymosis on the right lateral neck (Figure 3). She also had ecchymoses on all 4 extremities, her posterior shoulders, posterior neck, and left lumbar and sacral areas. Vital signs were normal.
A head CT scan showed a displaced fracture of the distal tip of the right nasal bone (Figure 4). The fracture was of indeterminate age.
On further questioning by the ED staff, the patient admitted that her injuries had actually been inflicted by her boyfriend, with whom she had lived for 5 years. During an argument the previous night, her boyfriend hit her in the face with his forehead and elbows, grabbed her around the throat and threatened to kill her, and threw her about the room.
For the past 3 years, her boyfriend had assaulted her about once a month, grabbing her and pushing her into the wall. She stated that after these incidents he had always seemed remorseful and begged her forgiveness. His assault the night before was the worst she had ever experienced. She subsequently filed an official complaint with the local police.
INJURIES ASSOCIATED WITH INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE: AN OVERVIEW
Victims of abuse are seldom upfront about the true cause of the injuries they sustain at the hands of their abuser. They often make up stories to explain injuries, agree with the false stories told by their abusers, and deny abuse when directly questioned. Thus, it is especially important to become adept at recognizing the physical signs of abuse.
There is a large body of research on the specific patterns of injury that characterize child abuse (eg, bruising patterns, types of burns, types of orthopedic injuries). Awareness of these injury patterns has proved tremendously helpful to clinicians in their efforts to identify abuse in children. Although an estimated 4.8 million women and 2.9 million men in the United States sustain physical assault from an intimate partner each year,1 there have been far fewer studies of the types, locations, and mechanisms of injury associated with intimate partner violence (IPV).
IPV typically results in head, neck, and facial injuries. In fact, about 90% of victims of IPV present with head and neck injuries,2,3 and IPV is thought to account for between 34% and 73% of all facial injuries in women.4,5
SPECIFIC PATTERNS OF FACIAL INJURY ASSOCIATED WITH IPV
Recently, a study by Arosarena and colleagues6 found specific patterns of facial injury that are more likely to be associated with IPV than with other sources of injury, such as motor vehicle accidents—or even with assault by a stranger. Familiarity with these patterns may help you determine more accurately when heightened suspicion of IPV is warranted, even though a patient may deny any such history.
The investigators reviewed the medical and dental records of 326 women with facial trauma treated by otolaryngologists and oral/maxillofacial surgeons at a university hospital. They found that injuries around the eye or upper face were more likely to be associated with IPV, while mandible fractures were more likely to be caused by assault by an unknown assailant. Victims of IPV more frequently had zygomatic complex fractures, orbital blow-out fractures, and intracranial injuries than did other patients with facial trauma.
Dr David Greene, an otolaryngologist who has studied IPV, notes that this pattern reflects the fact that a woman’s face is the most meaningful area on her person; consequently, hitting in the face figures prominently in IPV.7 This pattern can be contrasted with that typically seen in the assault of a robber, for example, whose goal is to disable the victim.7
Other clues that IPV may be the cause of a patient’s injuries include:
• Injuries that are inconsistent with the method of injury described by the patient.
• Evidence or a history of previous injuries—possibly in different stages of healing. In this woman, for example, her nasal fracture was probably the result of an earlier assault.
• Significant delay between the injury and presentation.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT ABUSE
Intervention can lead to the breaking of a cycle of violence— often, escalating violence—to which a victim is likely to return after she leaves a hospital or clinician’s office. The AMA encourages the reporting of IPV by clinicians and the referral of victims to social service agencies that can provide needed assistance.8
Brief questioning of patients with suspicious injuries can increase the identification of victims of IPV— much as it did in this case. In fact, McLeer and Anwar9 found that most women in such settings respond with relief to questioning about the true cause of their injuries. It is important to have on hand the contact information for appropriate agencies and support services to which women who are victims of IPV can be referred (Box).
INCREASED VIGILANCE NEEDED IN HARD TIMES
The need to be vigilant for signs of IPV—and to intervene when violence is suspected—is especially great in times of economic hardship such as the nation is now experiencing. Economic distress is known to exacerbate IPV.9 The cause of the increase is multifactorial: financial stress often leads to more frequent and more violent abuse; out-of-work husbands and boyfriends are home more and thus have more opportunities to abuse their partners; and women are less likely to leave abusive situations for fear they will not be able to support themselves. Social service agencies in all parts of the country are reporting increases in domestic violence related to the current recession.10-12
The following Web sites provide a variety of information, links to hotlines and local agencies, and other resources for victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) and health care practitioners whose patients may be victims.
NOTE: Remind patients whom you suspect or know to be an IPV victim that they should access all online IPV resources on a safe computer, such as one in a public library or at work.
National Domestic Violence Hotline www.ndvh.org
(or phone: 800-799-SAFE )
This nonprofit organization, established as part of the 1996 Violence Against Women Act, provides crisis intervention, information, and referral to victims of domestic violence and their families and friends. It maintains a telephone hotline through which callers from all 50 states and Puerto Rico can receive help and referrals to more than 5000 shelters and domestic violence programs. The hotline is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and provides interpreter services in more than 170 languages.
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline www.loveisrespect.org
(or phone: 866-331-9474)
This site provides a wealth of information for teens on how to recognize when they are in an abusive relationship and on how—if they determine their relationship is abusive—they can get help and stay safe. There is also information for parents who suspect their teen may be in an abusive dating relationship.
Office on Violence Against Women www,ovw.usdoj.gov
The Web site of this newly created Department of Justice office provides resources for victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and stalking, as well for victims of domestic and dating violence.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence www.ncadv.org
This site offers IPV victims excellent, detailed information on such topics as how to create a safety plan, how to stay safe online, and how to protect one’s identity.
Family Violence Prevention Fund endabuse.org
This Web site provides resources on IPV for health care providers as well as resources for victims.