Traumatic brain injury in survivors of intimate partner violence

While the diagnoses and treatment of sport-related concussion have well-established guidelines and protocols, a new study from UBC’s Okanagan campus is looking at a previously understudied group—women survivors of intimate partner violence. The hope is to develop a simple screening tool to help front-line services, like women’s shelters, identify traumatic brain injury earlier.

Dr Paul van Donkelaar is lead researcher and a professor with the School of Health and Exercise Sciences. He reports that there is currently little direct evidence for the potential link between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injury–induced brain dysfunction. In many cases, survivors of intimate partner violence don’t necessarily know they have had a traumatic brain injury, and yet they are suffering from chronic symptoms including headaches, dizziness, and difficulty remembering. Further, if a brain injury is diagnosed, it might be several months or years after the initial damaging blow took place. And was it caused by one blow, multiple attacks over several months, or from being shaken or even strangled?

While diagnosis is a challenge, there also remains a social stigma with intimate partner violence. Van Donkelaar says many women who do seek medical help may not tell the truth when asked how the injury occurred. For these reasons alone, van Donkelaar and his research team want to make concussion assessments and care for survivors of intimate partner violence accessible and straightforward.

For this latest research, the team used two brain injury questionnaires—the Brain Injury Severity Assessment tool (BISA) and the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT5)—to get a better sense of the symptoms experienced by survivors. Eighteen women took the part in the study.

The research, published in Brain Injury, determined that by using the BISA test, which asks questions about symptoms resulting from episodes of intimate partner violence, more brain injuries were reported by the survivors. The study determined that each participant had suffered at least one previous traumatic brain injury, and most had suffered many.

The findings from the current investigation can be used to develop informed screening tools to help front-line staff at women’s shelters identify a brain injury as a possible factor in the symptoms experienced by survivors of intimate partner violence. Van Donkelaar says providing these practical support resources to survivors will improve their chances of breaking the cycle and enable them to move forward into an abuse-free future.

The study is available at

. Traumatic brain injury in survivors of intimate partner violence. BCMJ, Vol. 62, No. 1, January, February, 2020, Page(s) 30 - News.

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