Women’s Need for Medical Care Spikes Following Sexual Assault, Study Finds

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Sexual-violence survivors showed increased diagnoses for psychiatric and stress-related medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, fatigue, physical pain and heart palpitations following their assault. Photo: iStock

Women who experience sexual assault are more likely to need medical care for mental health and stress-related problems in the year following the attack, new research suggests.

Researchers at Kaiser Permanente analyzed the medical records of 1,350 women in northern California who were sexually assaulted between 2009 and 2015. They compared the women’s use of health-care services and their diagnoses in the years before and after the assault.

The study also compared the victims’ records with those of other women of the same age and who attended the same medical facility but did not experience a sexual assault.

Sexual-violence survivors showed increased diagnoses for psychiatric and stress-related medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, fatigue, physical pain and heart palpitations following the assault, the researchers found. The survivors also sought psychiatric and gynecological services more often than women who had not been assaulted, according to the study published in late May online in the journal Medical Care.

“Our study is, I think, to date the best evidence that shows an association between sexual assault, health problems and health care use,” said the study’s lead author Kelly Young-Wolff, a clinical psychologist and research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. “We need to be training clinicians in how to ask about sexual assault and respond appropriately.”

Diagnoses for posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, saw the biggest spike following sexual assault. PTSD more than doubled from about 1 in 10 women seeking care to almost a quarter of sexual assault victims, according to the study. Psychiatric and sleep disorders also increased notably.