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The role of the physiotherapist in treating survivors of sexual assault

The role of the physiotherapist in treating survivors of sexual assault
Janine Stirling
, K Jane Chalmers
, Lucy Chipchase
Department of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Australian College of Applied Psychology, Sydney, Australia;
IIMPACT in Health Research, Allied Health and Human Performance,
University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia;
School of Health Sciences, Western Sydney University, Sydney, Australia;
College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders
University, Adelaide, Australia
In memory of India Eve Chipchase
The Me Too Movement has facilitated an international conversation
on sexual harassment and sexual assault, paving the way for change.
This topic once shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame is
currently under the spotlight, challenging society in a new and dy-
namic way. With open dialogue and readily accessible information,
the need for healthcare professionals to know more and do more is
compelling. Thus, it is time to reect on the role that physiotherapists
may play, either explicitly or implicitly, in the management of people
who have undergone sexual assault. The intent of this editorial is to
raise awareness and demonstrate a need for specic skills and
training to meet the complex needs of women who are survivors of
sexual assault trauma. The primary focus is on womens experiences;
men, however, may be similarly impacted.
In Australia, a population survey conducted in 2016 found that one
in every two women experienced sexual harassment.
harassment includes a range of unwanted behaviours such as
touching, kissing, fondling and showing or sending sexually offensive
material via text, email or social media.
Sexual assault, on the other
hand, is an act of a sexual nature that involves threat, intimidation
and physical force, carried out against a persons will and includes
rape, attempted rape and/or indecent assault.
One in six women
have experienced a sexual assault in Australia, although if childhood
sexual abuse is included, this ratio becomes one in four women.
The terms sexual assault and sexual abuse (often associated with
behaviour toward children, not adults) are often used interchange-
ably in the literature. For the purposes of this paper, the term sexual
assault is used and encompasses rape, sexual abuse and assault.
Sexual assault impacts on a persons physical, social, emotional
and psychological health. A systematic review of international papers,
including over three million participants, reported that sexual assault
had a signicant association with a lifetime diagnosis of depression,
post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, eating disorders, sleep disor-
ders and suicide attempts.
Similarly, Paras et al
found a statistically
signicant association between women with a history of rape and a
subsequent diagnosis of bromyalgia, chronic pelvic pain and
gastrointestinal disorders. Indeed, any exposure to trauma be it
psychological, emotional, physical or sexual in nature results in an
individual being 2.7 times more likely to experience a somatic syn-
drome than if they had no exposure to trauma.
These last two
studies were systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies con-
ducted internationally.
Physiotherapists who work in the Womens, Mens and Pelvic
Health subdiscipline of the profession have a role to play with women
who are survivors of sexual assault because they are more likely to
have multiple pelvic oor complaints compared with those without a
history of sexual assault.
Similarly, women who have been sexually
assaulted have been found to perceive symptoms of incontinence or
constipation as more severe and life impacting than those without a
sexual assault history.
While suitably qualied physiotherapists in
the Womens, Mens and Pelvic Health subdiscipline play a funda-
mental role in the management of these pelvic oor conditions, there
are two aspects that require further consideration.
First, given that one in four women have experienced sexual as-
sault, we must consider how this knowledge can be used in practice
to achieve the best possible outcome for women seeking treatment.
This may require physiotherapists, in the process of taking a history,
to use screening tools that address aspects of sexual wellbeing. Sexual
trauma impacts a persons psychological and physical health, and
treatment effectiveness relies on treating the underlying issues as
well as focusing on presenting symptoms.
Thus, one could argue that
it is an ethical duty to screen for sexual trauma and to obtain as much
clinically relevant information as possible to support assessment,
treatment and referral.
There are different ways to obtain this in-
formation, either through subjective questioning, or through the use
of more structured assessment tools. For example, the Adverse
Childhood Experience Questionnaire for Adults
is a 10-question tick
box tool that can identify exposure to sexual, emotional and physical
adversity in childhood (Box 1). Alternatively, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests ve screening questions
that can be asked to screen women for sexual assault (Box 2).
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that
healthcare practitioners screen those presenting with pelvic pain,
sexual dysfunction or dysmenorrhoea.
The numerous health im-
plications associated with sexual assault means that it is highly
probable that all physiotherapists will encounter patients with a
history of sexual assault in their practice, whether explicitly identied
or not. Training in conducting a subjective assessment and use of the
aforementioned assessment tools is important to ensure that phys-
iotherapists are competent in dealing with the possible responses to
the screening questions, while remaining sensitive to the needs of the
patient throughout the process.
A second aspect for physiotherapists to consider when treating a
patient presenting with a history of sexual assault is the survival
response and sequelae. Approximately 70% of women report tonic
immobility during a sexual assault.
Tonic immobility is a profound,
global motor inhibition where the skeletal muscles tense rigidly and
are unable to be moved voluntarily.
Not only is voluntary move-
ment affected, but vocal capacity is also diminished.
These motor
inhibitions mean that key survival-based actions of screaming and
movements of ghting or running away, which ordinarily protect the
body during a sympathetic response to threat, are not available.
Women who experience tonic immobility during sexual assault are
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twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and are three
times more likely to have severe depression 6 months after sexual
Women describe the experience of tonic immobility as
leaving them vulnerable to the feeling that immobility may occur in
other stressful life situations that involve sexual contact, or when
they feel afraid, out of control, angry or disregarded.
It is plausible
that when physiotherapists treat women with a history of sexual
assault that involuntary reexive responses relating to the assault
may be elicited during the course of treatment. This is particularly
likely if a woman is seeking help for a distressing pelvic condition
that requires an internal examination and related treatment.
To date, one case study has been published addressing how a
patient who received physiotherapy management of lower back pain
later developed symptoms associated with a prior history of sexual
In this case study, a number of physiological signs and
symptoms were observed in the patient after 10 weeks of treatment,
including sweating, shaking, suppressed breathing, freezing, hyper-
vigilance, an inability to focus, and outbursts of anger.
The patient
then disclosed experiencing ashbacks of her sexual assault 40 years
prior and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress
disorder. This report of delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder
during physiotherapy sessions draws into focus a number of key
questions that require investigation. For example, how many women
experience similar somatic symptoms during visits to physiothera-
pists? Are physiotherapists equipped to detect and manage these
uncomfortable somatic experiences? To what degree does a fear of
uncomfortable somatic experiences interfere with a womans
willingness to access physiotherapy services? If a patient does access
physiotherapy and vestiges of the survival response arise, what
conditions are necessary to promote a positive treatment outcome?
A trauma-informed approach is recommended when treating a
patient who presents with a history of any type of trauma.
The ve
core principles of trauma-informed care include: providing emotional
and physical safety by attuning to a patients needs; being trustworthy;
offering choices to patients; collaborating with them; and empowering
In a qualitative study involving 27 survivors of childhood
sexual abuse who received or were referred to physiotherapy, a need
for safety was considered the prevailing theme when discussing how
health professionals can practise with more sensitivity to their needs.
Safety was impacted if patients perceived a lack of control. They valued
accepting environments where the physiotherapist respected them,
was informed about how trauma impacts the bodyand was attentive to
their personal boundaries. Survivors also expressed a need to work in
partnership with a healthcare team consisting of a physiotherapist,
psychotherapist and general practitioner.
A similar approach was
documented by Dunleavy and Slowik in the physiotherapy manage-
ment of a patient with low back pain and a history of sexual assault 40
years prior.
With collaborative identication of stress responses and
triggers, management of hyperarousal, and a slow, graded exposure to
triggering stimuli, the patient reported positive outcomes in her back
pain after 2 years and an improvement in post-traumatic stress disor-
der symptoms over 4 years.
With very little available research to address how physiotherapists
can work with women who have been sexually assaulted, we must
consider how to build capacity within the profession to ensure that
women who are survivors of sexual assault receive the care and support
they require. This editorial is a rst step that has aimed to highlight gaps
in research and in clinical practice. There is a strong need for: good
screening of sexual assault history and subsequent psychological illness
in women; a requirement for future research to provide more detailed
approaches to delivering trauma-informed pelvic healthcare to women
who are survivors of sexual assault; and competency-based training for
physiotherapists so that they can deal with the issues that may arise
from screening. This is a callto action to further ourprofessions capacity
to help the one in four women who have experienced sexual assault.
Ethics approval: Nil.
Competing interests: Nil.
Source(s) of support: Nil.
Acknowledgements: Nil.
Provenance: Not invited. Peer reviewed.
Correspondence: Lucy Chipchase, Flinders University, Adelaide,
Australia. Email:
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Box 1. Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire for
Did you feel that you didnt have enough to eat, had to wear
dirty clothes, or had no one to protect or take care of you?
Did you lose a parent through divorce, abandonment, death, or
other reason?
Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill, or
attempted suicide?
Did you live with anyone who had a problem with drinking or
using drugs, including prescription drugs?
Did your parents or adults in your home ever hit, punch, beat or
threaten to harm each other?
Did you live with anyone who went to jail or prison?
Did a parent or adult in your home ever swear at you, insult
you, or put you down?
Did a parent or adult in your home ever hit, beat, kick or
physically hurt you in any way?
Did you feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you
were special?
Did you experience unwanted sexual contact (such as fondling
or oral/anal/vaginal intercourse/penetration)?
Box 2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
sexual assault screening questions.
Has anyone ever touched you against your will or without your
Have you ever been forced or pressured to engage in sexual
activities when you did not want to?
Have you ever had unwanted sex while under the influence of
alcohol or drugs?
Do you feel that you have control over your sexual relationships
and will be listened to if you say noto sexual activities?
Is your visit today because of a sexual experience you did not
want to happen?
Floyd S, Anderson J. American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists Committee Opinion Number 777: Sexual Assault.
Obstet Gynecol. 2019;133:e296e301.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
While tonic immobility (TI) is a phenomenon well known and documented in the animal world, far less is known about its manifestation in humans. Available literature demonstrates that TI is significantly associated with less hopeful prognoses when compared with survivors who did not experience TI (Fiszman et al., 2008; Heidt et al., 2005). If survivors who experience TI are at increased risk for "depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and peritraumatic dissociation" (Heidt et al., 2005, p. 1166) and respond more poorly "to standard pharmacological treatment for PTSD" (Fiszman et al., 2008, p. 196), the implications for treatment are significant, suggesting that TI "should be routinely assessed in traumatized patients" (Fiszman et al., 2008, p. 193). Literature indicates that "TI is thought to be particularly relevant to survivors of rape and other sexual assault" and that "sexual assault is a trauma that appears to entail virtually all of the salient elements associated with the induction of TI in nonhuman animals, namely, fear, contact, and restraint" (Marx et al., 2008, p. 79). Describing the phenomenon as it is experienced by survivors is especially important because the ability to accurately understand and describe the nature of the phenomenon is the first step toward accurately identifying, diagnosing, and treating the sequelae of such a response. This study examines the experience of TI from the perspective of 7 women who survived a sexual assault accompanied by tonic immobility using qualitative phenomenological methodology, and yields a description of the core defining themes of the experience of TI. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
Full-text available
Clinicians agree that knowledge of clients' sexual victimization histories are invaluable in conceptualizing cases and choosing treatment interventions; however, the routine assessment of sexual assault in clinical practice is not standard (e.g., Hurst, MacDonald, Say, & Reed, 200358. Hurst , C. , MacDonald , J. , Say , J. and Read , J. 2003 . Routine questioning about non-consenting sex: A survey of practice in Australasian sexual health clinics . International Journal of STD & AIDS , 14 : 329 – 333 . doi:10.1258/095646203321605530 [CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]View all references; Pruitt & Kappius, 199288. Pruitt , J. A. and Kappius , R. E. 1992 . Routine inquiry into sexual victimization: A survey of therapists' practices . Professional Psychology: Research, and Practice , 23 : 474 – 479 . doi:10.1037/0735–7028.23.6.474 [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]View all references). This article reviews recent research related to prevalence rates, short- and long-term consequences of sexual assault, available screening measures, and relevant resources for clinicians in screening for sexual trauma. Specifically, this article provides information to guide practitioners in adequately assessing sexual trauma among men and women abused either as children or adults, and addresses special issues for assessing sexual assault among elderly and disabled individuals.
Tonic Immobility (TI) is an evolved defence response, characterized by physical immobility. Peritraumatic TI has been linked to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, samples sizes in clinical studies have been small, and little is known about TI reactions post trauma, for instance during trauma reminders. The prevalence of peritraumatic TI and TI during re-experiencing the traumatic event was examined by self-report in 184 patients with chronic PTSD. Moderate peritraumatic TI was reported by 26.6% of the participants (n = 49) and extreme peritraumatic TI by 52.2% (n = 96). During re-experiencing the traumatic event, 35.3% (n = 65) reported moderate TI, and 37.0% (n = 68) extreme TI. Peritraumatic TI was related to PTSD symptom severity and TI during re-experiencing mediated this relationship. In line with previous findings, reports of peritraumatic TI were high among PTSD patients. In addition, we showed that it often re-occurred during re-experiencing the traumatic event. The prevalence of TI at different stages post trauma warrants future study.
Pelvic floor dysfunction has been described as “a silent epidemic,” affecting many people in the community yet under-recognized and insufficiently managed. There is evidence that pelvic floor physiotherapy can manage many of these disorders, however a competency framework to guide and inform pelvic floor physiotherapy training and practice is lacking. The assessment and management of the pelvic floor complex is not addressed as a core component of most entry-to-practice physiotherapy programs despite being within the scope of physiotherapy practice which is in contrast with the knowledge and skills that physiotherapists graduate with in core areas of clinical practice. This results in a registration-competency gap, and the need for post-graduation training to ensure clinicians are appropriately skilled to practice safely and effectively in this area. In addition, there are potential ethical and legal issues unique to this area of physiotherapy practice to be considered. We use a series of clinical scenarios to highlight the domains of knowledge, skills and communication required for practice in this area, based on our experience in Australia. We propose a framework for the future which defines competence in pelvic floor physiotherapy to provide clarity to clinicians about their clinical, ethical and legal obligations to the public, our referrers and third-party payers.
Introduction: Active resistance is considered to be the "normal" reaction during rape. However, studies have indicated that similar to animals, humans exposed to extreme threat may react with a state of involuntary, temporary motor inhibition known as tonic immobility. The aim of the present study was to assess the occurrence of tonic immobility during rape and subsequent posttraumatic stress disorder and severe depression MATERIAL AND METHODS: Tonic immobility at the time of the assault was assessed using the Tonic Immobility Scale in 298 women who had visited the Emergency clinic for raped women within 1 month of a sexual assault. Information about the assault and the victim characteristics were taken from the structured clinical data files. After 6 months, 189 women were assessed regarding the development of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression RESULTS: Of the 298 women, 70% reported significant tonic immobility and 48% reported extreme tonic immobility during the assault. Tonic immobility was associated with the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (OR 2.75; 1.50-5.03, p = .001) and severe depression (OR 3.42; 1.51-7.72, p = .003) at 6 months. Further, prior trauma history (OR 2.36; 1.48-3.77, p <.001) and psychiatric treatment history (OR 2.00; 1.26-3.19, p = .003) were associated with the TI response CONCLUSIONS: Tonic immobility during rape is a common reaction associated with subsequent posttraumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Knowledge of this reaction in sexual assault victims is important in legal matters and for health care follow-up. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Objective This meta-analysis systematically examined the association of reported psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with functional somatic syndromes including fibromyalgia, chronic widespread pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, temporomandibular disorder, and irritable bowel syndrome. Our goals were to determine the overall effect size of the association and to examine moderators of the relationship.Methods Literature searches identified 71 studies with a control or comparison group and examined the association of the syndromes with traumatic events including abuse of a psychological, emotional, sexual, or physical nature sustained during childhood or adulthood, combat exposure, or PTSD. A random-effects model was used to estimate the pooled odds ratio and 95% confidence interval. Planned subgroup analyses and meta-regression examined potential moderators.ResultsIndividuals who reported exposure to trauma were 2.7 (95% confidence interval = 2.27-3.10) times more likely to have a functional somatic syndrome. This association was robust against both publication bias and the generally low quality of the literature. The magnitude of the association with PTSD was significantly larger than that with sexual or physical abuse. Chronic fatigue syndrome had a larger association with reported trauma than did either irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia. Studies using nonvalidated questionnaires or self-report of trauma reported larger associations than did those using validated questionnaires.Conclusions Findings highlight the limitations of the existing literature and emphasize the importance of conducting prospective studies, further examining the potential similarities and differences of these conditions and pursuing hypothesis-driven studies of the mechanisms underlying the link between trauma, PTSD, and functional somatic syndromes.
Objective To examine the effect of previous sexual abuse or assault (SAA) on symptom severity, quality of life, and physiologic measures in women with fecal incontinence or constipation. Design A cross-sectional study of a prospectively maintained clinical database. Setting A tertiary referral center for evaluation and physiologic testing for pelvic floor disorders. Patients Women with fecal incontinence or constipation examined during a 6-year period. Main Outcome Measures Symptom severity and quality of life were measured with the Fecal Incontinence Severity Index (FISI), Fecal Incontinence Quality of Life Scale (FIQL), Constipation Severity Instrument (CSI), Constipation-Related Quality of Life measure (CR-QOL), and 12-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-12). Physiologic variables were ascertained with anorectal manometry, electromyography, and endoanal ultrasonography. Results Of the 1781 women included, 213 (12.0%) reported SAA. These women were more likely to be white, to report a psychiatric illness, and to have a prior hysterectomy or episiotomy. On bivariate analysis, women with prior SAA had increased symptom severity on the FISI (P = .002) and CSI (P < .001) and diminished quality of life on the FIQL (P < .001), CR-QOL (P = .009), and SF-12 (P = .002 to P = .004). Physiologic variables did not differ significantly between patients with and without prior SAA. Conclusions A history of SAA significantly alters disease perception in fecal incontinence and constipation, but the disorders do not result from increased physiologic alterations. We must elicit a history of SAA in these patients, because the history may play a role in the discrepancy between symptom reporting and objective measurements and may modify treatment recommendations.
Sexual violence has been identified as one of the most common predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This case report describes the emergence of delayed PTSD symptoms, disclosure of history of sexual trauma, and the influence of re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal symptoms on physical therapy treatment. A 60-year-old woman was seen for treatment of low back pain. of a discord between fear of falling and no balance impairments led to disclosure of sexual assault by a physician at 19 years of age. The patient's PTSD symptoms emerged after 10 weeks of physical therapy. The physical therapists monitored somatic responses and body language closely and modified and planned treatment techniques to avoid PTSD triggers and limit hyperarousal. Collaborative communication approaches included reinforcement of cognitive-behavioral strategies introduced by her psychotherapists. Trauma-cognizant approaches supported the patient's efforts to manage PTSD symptoms sufficiently to tolerate physical therapy and participate in a back care class. Nonlinear psychological healing is illustrated. Symptoms of PTSD may emerge during physical therapy treatment, and patient-sensitive responses to disclosure are important. The trauma-cognizant approach (2-way communication, patient-centered management, and integration of psychological elements into clinical decision making) helped identify and respond to triggers. The physical therapists reinforced cognitive-behavioral strategies introduced by psychotherapists to manage PTSD symptoms. Patient-centered care with further refinement to a trauma-cognizant approach may play an important role in assisting patients with PTSD or a history of sexual trauma to manage symptoms while addressing rehabilitation needs.
To systematically assess the evidence for an association between sexual abuse and a lifetime diagnosis of psychiatric disorders. We performed a comprehensive search (from January 1980-December 2008, all age groups, any language, any population) of 9 databases: MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, Current Contents, PsycINFO, ACP Journal Club, CCTR, CDSR, and DARE. Controlled vocabulary supplemented with keywords was used to define the concept areas of sexual abuse and psychiatric disorders and was limited to epidemiological studies. Six independent reviewers extracted descriptive, quality, and outcome data from eligible longitudinal studies. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were pooled across studies by using the random-effects model. The I(2) statistic was used to assess heterogeneity. The search yielded 37 eligible studies, 17 case-control and 20 cohort, with 3,162,318 participants. There was a statistically significant association between sexual abuse and a lifetime diagnosis of anxiety disorder (OR, 3.09; 95% CI, 2.43-3.94), depression (OR, 2.66; 95% CI, 2.14-3.30), eating disorders (OR, 2.72; 95% CI, 2.04-3.63), posttraumatic stress disorder (OR, 2.34; 95% CI, 1.59-3.43), sleep disorders (OR, 16.17; 95% CI, 2.06-126.76), and suicide attempts (OR, 4.14; 95% CI, 2.98-5.76). Associations persisted regardless of the victim's sex or the age at which abuse occurred. There was no statistically significant association between sexual abuse and a diagnosis of schizophrenia or somatoform disorders. No longitudinal studies that assessed bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder were found. Associations between sexual abuse and depression, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder were strengthened by a history of rape. A history of sexual abuse is associated with an increased risk of a lifetime diagnosis of multiple psychiatric disorders.
Many patients presenting for general medical care have a history of sexual abuse. The literature suggests an association between a history of sexual abuse and somatic sequelae. To systematically assess the association between sexual abuse and a lifetime diagnosis of somatic disorders. Data Sources and Extraction A systematic literature search of electronic databases from January 1980 to December 2008. Pairs of reviewers extracted descriptive, quality, and outcome data from included studies. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were pooled across studies by using the random-effects model. The I(2) statistic was used to assess heterogeneity. Eligible studies were longitudinal (case-control and cohort) and reported somatic outcomes in persons with and without history of sexual abuse. The search identified 23 eligible studies describing 4640 subjects. There was a significant association between a history of sexual abuse and lifetime diagnosis of functional gastrointestinal disorders (OR, 2.43; 95% CI, 1.36-4.31; I(2) = 82%; 5 studies), nonspecific chronic pain (OR, 2.20; 95% CI, 1.54-3.15; 1 study), psychogenic seizures (OR, 2.96; 95% CI, 1.12-4.69, I(2) = 0%; 3 studies), and chronic pelvic pain (OR, 2.73; 95% CI, 1.73-4.30, I(2) = 40%; 10 studies). There was no statistically significant association between sexual abuse and a lifetime diagnosis of fibromyalgia (OR, 1.61; 95% CI, 0.85-3.07, I(2) = 0%; 4 studies), obesity (OR, 1.47; 95% CI, 0.88-2.46; I(2) = 71%; 2 studies), or headache (OR, 1.49; 95% CI, 0.96-2.31; 1 study). We found no studies that assessed syncope. When analysis was restricted to studies in which sexual abuse was defined as rape, significant associations were observed between rape and a lifetime diagnosis of fibromyalgia (OR, 3.35; 95% CI, 1.51-7.46), chronic pelvic pain (OR, 3.27; 95% CI, 1.02-10.53), and functional gastrointestinal disorders (OR, 4.01; 95% CI, 1.88-8.57). Evidence suggests a history of sexual abuse is associated with lifetime diagnosis of multiple somatic disorders.