Childhood Abuse and Pregnancy

Mirjam Lukasse of the University of Tromso in Norway and colleagues have completed interesting and relevant research among women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse and pregnancy. In a longitudinal cohort study based on data from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, nearly 5000 women were questioned about childhood abuse and feelings about pregnancy. Between 18 and 30 weeks of gestation and again 6 months postpartum, subjects were sent questionnaires to assess associations between childhood abuse and women's fears about childbirth or preference for cesarean section (c-section) during pregnancy.In the study, 21% of the women reported experiencing childhood abuse. Women who were abused reported a significantly higher rate of fear of childbirth when compared to women who did not report abuse (23% and 15%, respectively.) Subjects who reported abuse were also more likely to state a preference for a c-section during the second pregnancy (6.4% versus 4%.)

The same author was the primary researcher on an article summarized as the following: "Abuse in childhood is associated with increased reporting of common complaints of pregnancy." The authors point out that clinicians need to consider the issue of childhood abuse when working with pregnant women who have multiple complaints or increased challenges from typical complaints in pregnancy. In a similar updated article, Lukasse and colleagues describe the relationship between sexual violence and pregnancy-related symptoms. You can access the full text article by clicking HERE. Prior or recent severe sexual violence is correlated in this research with suffering from equal to or greater than 8 pregnancy-related symptoms. Symptoms include backache, fatigue, constipation, pelvic girdle dysfunction, nausea/vomiting, edema, headache, urinary dysfunction, pruritus, and others.

Let's address the potential value of this information. Most of us who work in pelvic rehabilitation also treat women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant. While assuming that a woman who has significant pregnancy-related symptoms has been abused is not appropriate, considering that she has a history of abuse may be helpful to the patient. A woman who is experiencing abuse while pregnant may feel especially vulnerable as she considers how to care and provide for her child. Knowing how to ask questions in a respectful and clear way can be extremely helpful. The website "Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse" has a page of helpful language and strategies for the primary care provider who is engaging in a conversation about abuse. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page in the link you will find a printable summary of how to sensitively ask questions about abuse. Consider utilizing this information for an upcoming article review or inservice to staff or colleagues. Sharing statistics with patients and developing the habit of asking all patients about abuse can help to normalize the discussion so that patients feel safe enough to reach out when able.

Many of you are familiar with the foundational work of Penny Simkin, who is trained as a physical therapist and a childbirth educator. One of her more recent contributions to the field of childbirth is her book "When Survivors Give Birth" which discusses the challenging journey many women who have been abused face when in the midst of a pregnancy. In addition to having books for purchase, Penny also gives lectures on many topics including survivors and birthing. Her website can be accessed here.

These topics are covered in various ways throughout the pelvic rehab series and other specialty coursework such as the new peripartum courses offered this year. Sexual abuse can be a very sensitive and uncomfortable topic for both the provider and the patient. Being more aware of the high prevalence of abuse and also of the potential negative consequences of prior or current abuse leads the pelvic rehab provider to more proficient options.

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