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Objectives  To determine if a history of sexual abuse is associated with objective and subjective indicators of health and if certain abusive incidents had a stronger impact on health than others.

Design  A cross-sectional, multicentre study.

Setting  Five gynaecological departments in the five Nordic countries.

Sample  Three thousand five hundred and thirty-nine gynaecology patients.

Methods  The NorVold Abuse Questionnaire (NorAQ) on abuse history and current health was mailed to all patients who consented to participate.

Main outcome measures  Reason for index visit at the gynaeocological clinic as well as several questions on health were recorded. General health status was measured as self-estimated health, psychosomatic symptoms (headache, abdominal pain, muscle, weakness, dizziness), number of health care visits and number of periods on sick leave.

Result  A history of sexual abuse was reported by 20.7% of respondents. A history of sexual abuse was significantly associated with chronic pelvic pain as reason for index visit (P < 0.01), laparoscopic surgery (P < 0.01), psychosomatic symptoms (P < 0.01), self-estimated poor health (P < 0.01), many health care visits (P < 0.01) and high incidence of sick leave (P < 0.01). Several subgroups within the group of sexually abused women were more likely to report poor health: women abused as both children and adults, women who experienced additional emotional and/or physical abuse and women abused by a person they knew.

Conclusion  Sexual abuse has a profound impact on women's health. Taking a history of sexual abuse seems particularly warranted when the patient presents with chronic pelvic pain or symptoms of a vague and diffuse nature.