Navigating Pelvic Health Physical Therapy as a Survivor of Sexual Assault
Most resources report that between 1-in-4 to 1-in 6-women in the United States have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. These discrepancies are often a result of the difficulty to obtain accurate data, with many survivors choosing not to report their assault. Sexual abuse often results in chronic physical and mental health concerns for victims, which some studies have linked to a higher likelihood of chronic pelvic pain, irritable bowel syndrome and other pelvic floor disorders.1 Albeit disheartening, these statistics often feel unsurprising due to the sheer number of women who have disclosed to me their own experiences with sexual abuse. As a survivor of sexual assault, I have first-hand experience of the devastating effects that trauma of this nature can have on mental and physical health. Pelvic floor physical therapy—in coordination with my wonderful therapist, legal advocate, family, and friends—has helped me in my long journey to recovery.
The first exposure I had to the field of pelvic health physical therapy (PT) was through a friend in physical therapy school who had already started shadowing specialists as a graduate student. At this point, I was years deep into what felt like an endless cycle of referrals to specialists, and procedures that all ended up fruitless in finding a cause or treatment for the pelvic floor issues I had. Moreover, experiencing trauma made a lot of my treatments feel frightening and challenging, and until I saw a pelvic floor physical therapist, I never felt comfortable disclosing my experience of sexual abuse with providers. More than anything, pelvic floor PT was an incredibly welcoming and validating experience that made me feel empowered and educated on what was causing the pain and symptoms I had experienced for so long.
After beginning pelvic floor physical therapy as a patient, I quickly dove into joining the APTA Academy of Pelvic Health and signed up for my pelvic floor level I course. Honestly, transitioning from a pelvic health patient to learning about being a pelvic health physical therapist was not an easy transition for me. Fortunately, all the course educators and assistants were understanding and transparent about the unique challenges that arise with working in pelvic floor PT and the level of sensitivity required. I was also fortunate to be able to talk to other friends who had taken the course before, as well as professors about pelvic health.
For myself, and many other women, pelvic health concerns are chronic, complex, and often overlooked. Even as a physical therapy student, I was unaware of what pelvic health physical therapy really entailed and how to utilize it. Like most other physical therapy students, I was introduced to sports orthopedic physical therapy following a sports-related injury in middle school. During which I received a partial meniscectomy, and excitedly presented the video of my surgery to my 8th grade science class. Now, I see that physical therapy has a much wider range of possibilities and populations to treat. This variety excites me as a student, and I have tried to make my clinical placements just as varied to better diversify my experiences and my skill set. Completing my level 1 pelvic floor course has already been valuable to my education and clinical practice. In my current outpatient orthopedic setting, I have been able to educate patients on pelvic floor anatomy and refer them to pelvic floor physical therapy specialists when necessary and appropriate.
As a physical therapist, I hope to create a safe and inclusive environment for my patients that recognizes the importance of consistent consent before and during treatment. I also hope to increase the awareness of the population of patients who have experienced sexual assault and how to best treat them. This includes, but is not limited to, basic training in mental health first aid and knowledge of additional referral resources like legal advocates and cognitive behavioral therapists. As pelvic health physical therapy continues to grow in awareness and access, we will be able to help combat the challenges that so many women like myself have had, and will have to, continue to battle.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my journey and thank you to the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy for providing me with this scholarship.
Author: Morgan Meyer
Author Bio: 2002 scholarship recipient, Morgan Meyer, is a Class of 2023 physical therapy student at Carroll University, in Waukesha, WI. She is passionate about human rights and animal welfare and is excited to be part of the adaptive and dynamic profession of physical therapy.
Citations: 1. Cichowski SB, Dunivan GC, Komesu YM, Rogers RG. Sexual abuse history and pelvic floor disorders in women. South Med J. 2013;106(12):675-678. doi:10.1097/SMJ.0000000000000029