By SAMYUKTA MULLANGI MD, MBA, DANIEL W. BERLAND MD, and SUSAN DORR GOOLD MD, MHSA, MA
Jenny, a woman in her twenties with morbid obesity (not her real name), had already been through multiple visits with specialists, primary care physicians (PCPs), and the emergency department (ED) for unexplained abdominal pain. A plethora of tests could not explain her suffering. Monthly visits with a consistent primary care physician also had little impact on her ED visits or her pain. Some clinicians had broached the diagnosis of functional abdominal pain related to her central adiposity, and recommended weight loss. This suggestion inevitably led her to become defensive and angry.
our standard screen for safety at home had been completed long ago, I wanted to
probe further, knowing that many patients with obesity, chronic pain and other
chronic conditions have suffered an adverse childhood – or adulthood –
experience (ACE). Yet, I hesitated. Would a busy primary care setting offer enough
latitude for me to ask about a history of trauma when it can occur in so many
forms, in so many ways and at different times of life? Furthermore, suppose she
did report a history of trauma or adverse experience. What then? Would I be
able to help her?
I began: “Jenny, many patients with symptoms like yours have been abused,
either emotionally, physically, or sexually, or neglected in their past.
Sometimes they have suffered loss of a loved one, or experienced or witnessed
violence. Has anything like this ever happened to you?”
yielded our first breakthrough. Yes, she had experienced neglect, with parents
who were separated for much of her childhood, and then later divorced. She had
seen her father physically abuse her mother. With little parental oversight,
she had engaged in drug and alcohol use throughout her teenage years. But, she
wanted to be sure we understood that this was all behind her. She had