Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) have been linked to having a higher risk of developing several somatic, or physical, health issues that are thought to be related to the trauma they’ve experienced.

These issues, related to one’s physical bodily functioning, may exist long-term, well after the trauma has occurred. These issues are sometimes referred to as “diseases of trauma”, and may be medically treated.1 Others may be harder to manage and have no definitive treatment. Several of these conditions include:

  • Migraine
  • Asthma
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as lack of sexual desire, trouble reaching orgasm, erectile dysfunction, and pain during intercourse1,2
Some survivors are not comfortable seeking help

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse may not feel comfortable seeking treatment for these issues, as well as any other conditions or symptoms that they may experience throughout their life as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced. Although not everyone’s experience is the same, some suggestions for why this aversion to treatment may exist are the fear of disclosing past traumatic events that may be related to or relevant when seeking treatment or wanting to avoid feeling out of control or powerless when asking a physician for help. The doctor-patient relationship is one where the doctor often holds most of the power, and survivors of CSA may not feel comfortable putting themselves in this vulnerable situation. Additionally, some individuals may want to avoid certain examinations, especially of the mouth, throat, or genital regions, to avoid triggering memories of an unwanted experience.2

It’s important to find the right healthcare provider

In order to be able to participate in a needed examination or procedure, an individual may need to tell their provider what they have been through in order to feel more in control, at ease, or informed on why a physician is doing what they are doing. However, not every physician will create a comforting space for an individual to share their past experiences, nor will they provide those visiting them with the opportunity to do so. It’s important to remember that if your provider does not make you feel comfortable enough to ask questions or share what you need to, they may not be the right provider for you.

A few signs that your physician is creating a healthy communicative space include, but are not limited to:

  • Your physician asking about any past trauma and giving you the time to explain, if you wish
  • Your provider stopping any non-emergent activities to listen to what you are saying
  • Your provider asking you for any preferences in who is examining you or what kinds of exams or procedures are done
  • Your provider asking you how they can make you feel more comfortable or safe
  • Your provider thoroughly explaining any exams or procedures to you, as well as explaining why they think they are beneficial for you (this may also include explaining why they may need you to get undressed or why they may need to touch you in a specific location)
  • Your provider allows you to provide informed consent to anything that may make you uncomfortable
  • Your provider lets you know before they need to touch you and why they are doing so
  • Your provider regularly checks-in with you or asks how you are doing during appointments, exams, or procedures
  1. Hall M, Hall J. The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. American Counseling Association. https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/long-term-effects-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.pdf?sfvrsn=2. Published 2011. Accessed December 27, 2017.
  2. Gallo-Silver L, Anderson CM, Romo J. Best clinical practices for male adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse: “Do no harm.” Perm J. 2014; 18(3), 82-87.

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