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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Symptoms and Physical Exam Findings in Sexual Assault-related Non-fatal Strangulation


Objective: Our goal was to investigate the frequency of specific signs and symptoms following sexual assault-related non-fatal strangulation (NFS) and to explore the interaction between assault characteristics and physical exam findings.

Methods: This retrospective observational study included all adults (>18 years) reporting strangulation during sexual assault who presented for a forensic sexual assault exam at one of six urban community hospitals contracted with a single forensic nurse agency. Demographic information, narrative elements, and physical exam findings were abstracted from standardized sexual assault reporting forms. We analyzed data with descriptive statistics and compared specific variables using chi-square testing.

Results: Of the 580 subjects 99% were female, with a median age of 27 (interquartile range 22-35 years). The most common injury location was the neck (57.2%), followed by the mouth (29.1%). We found that 19.1% of the victims had no injuries evident on physical exam and 29.8% reported a loss of consciousness. Eye/eyelid and neck findings did not significantly differ between subjects who reported blows to the head in addition to strangulation and those who did not. The time that elapsed between assault and exam did not significantly correlate with the presence of most head and torso physical exam findings, except for nose injury (P = 0.02).

Conclusion: Slightly more than half of the victims who reported strangulation during sexual assault had visible neck injuries. Other non-anogenital findings were present even less frequently, with a substantial portion of victims having no injuries documented on physical exam. The perpetrators’ use of blows to the head may account for many of the non-anogenital injuries observed, but not for the neck and eye/eyelid injuries, which may be more specific to non-fatal strangulation. More research is needed to definitively establish strangulation as the causal mechanism for these findings, and to determine whether any long-term neurologic or vascular sequelae resulted from the observed injuries.

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