By Anne P. DePrince and Kim Gorgens

Most people know it’s a problem for athletes and soldiers— but it affects victims of domestic violence even more

Thousands of athletes returned to high school, college and professional football fields this fall, renewing discussions about the risk for and potentially devastating consequences of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in contact sports. However, an even larger population of people affected by TBI will continue to go unrecognized and undiagnosed: women who are victims of domestic violence.

One in seven women has been injured by an intimate partner. Among women experiencing domestic violence, a handful of research teams across the U.S. have now documented alarming rates of head injuries, with studies suggesting that as many as 90 percent of women seeking emergency or shelter services for domestic violence report have had them.

Traumatic brain injuries occur when a blow to the head interrupts normal brain functioning. Those disruptions can include loss of consciousness, memory problems for the injury, muscle weakness and blurred vision. TBIs can range from mild to moderate or severe; most people experiencing mild TBIs won’t have lasting symptoms. However, more serious and repeated TBIs can lead to serious and costly problems involving physical health; attention and memory; depression; suicidality; and even dementing diseases later in life.

Because of the serious problems linked with repeated TBIs, researchers and journalists have focused on groups likely to experience multiple head injuries, such as athletes playing contact sports and combat veterans. Like football players, victims of domestic violence often suffer from brain trauma—but with much less attention. 

In research published by one of us (DePrince) with Kelly Gagnon, we interviewed more than 200 Colorado women following police reports of domestic violence. The incidents varied in severity; some cases involved violations of protection orders where there were no physical injuries, while others involved serious physical injury. More than one in 10 women described being hit in the head or losing consciousness during the most recent domestic violence incident. That number went up to 20 percent when we included domestic violence incidents that occurred in the previous six months.