Sexual assault can have long-term consequences on mental health, but also on the physical body. Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found that victims of rape and other sexual trauma were more likely to have breathing problems.
A link between rape and dysfunctional breathing
The team of scientists, led by Professor Bob Hancox and sexual health specialist Dr Jane Morgan, have discovered a link between being raped and “dysfunctional breathing” in both women and men who have suffered this type of assault. However, female victims seem more likely to suffer from late-onset asthma.
“Dysfunctional breathing”, also known as hyperventilation syndrome, is characterized by breathing too deep or too fast. Patients may also experience chest pain and a tingling sensation in the fingertips and around the mouth. These signs can also accompany a panic attack.
The researchers studied the records of a group of 1,037 participants born between 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin who had entered the longitudinal study dubbed “Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study“.
Almost 20% of these women and 4% of the men admitted to having been raped at some point in their life. Analysis of the information transmitted revealed that these victims were more likely to have dysfunctional breathing at age 38.
Rape was also associated with self-reported diagnoses of asthma and wheezing symptoms in women, but not in men.
“If this is a true cause and effect association, these analyzes indicate that 23% of all women with asthma by age 38, or almost a third of adult asthma cases could be attributed to rape,” assures Professor Bob Hancox.
Breathing problems as a consequence of sexual trauma
In the article in the latest issue of the European Respiratory Journal, Professor Bob Hancox adds “the results show that dysfunctional breathing can be the result of severe psychological trauma and is consistent with case reports of sexual abuse in patients with other types of breathing difficulties”.
The expert and his colleagues call on health professionals to “recognize the possibility of previous traumatic experiences triggering dysfunctional breathing or late asthma” and thus “determine whether psychological counseling or other forms of therapy could help their patients”.
The researchers focused on rape because it is a particularly traumatic experience that can be clearly defined. However, Professor Hancox believes that it is likely that other forms of sexual and non-sexual abuse could have similar effects. “We need to investigate whether other forms of sexual, physical and psychological trauma are also associated with respiratory rhythm disturbances,” he agrees.