Women with a history of abuse are more likely to have their ovaries removed.
That’s according to a new study by the Mayo Clinic.
Unnecessary surgeries are especially worrisome, said experts, because they put women at higher risk for many kinds of serious diseases.
Significantly, all of the women studied had normal ovaries. None had ovarian cancer or the biomarkers that put their health at risk.
But removing these healthy ovaries has consequences.
Ovaries are important endocrine organs, so they produce indispensable hormones, Dr. Liliana Gazzuola Rocca, a Mayo Clinic health sciences researcher and psychiatrist, told Healthline.
The effects of having them removed can make women more susceptible to strokes, heart disease, and even osteoporosis, along with depression, anxiety, and dementia.
“The premature lack of hormones before menopause,” Rocca explained, “will cause accelerated aging of all tissues and organs of the body.”
Pain may be psychological
Researchers said that 62 percent of the women in their study with a history of abuse were more apt to have their ovaries removed before age 46 than women who didn’t report abuse.
For their findings, researchers pored over data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, and examined the medical records of 128 women from 1988 through 2007 who had their ovaries removed and included reports of abuse.
The abuse was typically physical, sexual, or emotional, and could have lasting effects.
The women with a history of abuse ended up going to their doctors with complaints about excessive bleeding or chronic pelvic pain.
However, these symptoms may instead have been benign conditions of the uterus like fibroids, said experts.
The underlying problem is that women see their reproductive organs as a burden or a source of stress, explained Rocca.
“Unfortunately, surgery won’t resolve psychological and emotional issues,” she said, “but will cause a cascade of harmful physical and mental consequences.”
But women may not be able to link their current symptoms with past abusive events, she added. So they seek a “definitive solution.”
Removing ovaries has become a common way to treat — or to prevent — ovarian cancer, Rocca noted.
The connection between abusive childhoods and psychiatric and somatic complaints later in life are nothing new, though.
Researchers have known this for decades.
But Rocca and her team narrowed the focus of their study to linking women having ovaries removed to abuse.
“So we weren’t very surprised by the findings,” she said.
Mind, body connection
“Women are prompting doctors to do procedures on these essential organs,” Dr. Stephanie Faubion, an internist and director of the Women’s Health Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, told Healthline. “And they’re convinced that this is the cause of the problem.”
But it’s important to understand that physical and emotional pain are linked together, she explained. Even a superficial psychiatric evaluation may miss underlying issues.
“Mind and body connections are very strong,” Elizabeth Jeglic, a clinical psychologist who teaches sexual violence prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Healthline. “And pain might be psychological.”
Rocca hopes that the findings from the study are a wakeup call for medicine.
“Unfortunately, it takes a long time for new discoveries to translate into a better informed medicine,” she said.
But this information may lead to less harmful interventions, she added.
Faubion agreed. She worries that doctors aren’t asking whether their female patients have been abused.
“We’ve added it to our intake form,” she said. “Also, women aren’t always willing to call something abuse when it clearly is.”
Looking at the whole picture is important though, she added.
“When women come to us, we can’t just treat body parts,” she said. “Physicians can try to understand women complaining of pain.”
And Jeglic suggested that abuse should be an open door to exploring other causes, especially if all the tests are run and there’s no explanation.
The message, concluded Faubion, is that the ovaries shouldn’t be taken out before menopause unless it’s necessary.
“Investigate both the physical and emotional causes,” she said. “For women with a history of abuse, it’s important to work through it. Women must make this connection.”