A modified form of therapy known as “prolonged exposure therapy” has been shown more effective than other counseling for adolescent girls suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Investigators at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Medicine say greater healing for such patients comes from revisiting aloud all manner of thoughts, feelings, and memories linked to the trauma — usually sexual abuse.

The study is the first to offer good evidence establishing the effectiveness of the therapy, with hopes to serve a large underserved population in America — young girls. "We hypothesized that prolonged exposure therapy could fill this gap and were eager to test its ability to provide benefit for adolescent patients," Edna Foa, a psychology professor at Penn, who developed prolonged exposure therapy, said in a statement.

The study authors further wrote, "Adolescent girls with sexual abuse–related PTSD experienced greater benefit from prolonged exposure therapy than from supportive counseling even when delivered by counselors who typically provide supportive counseling.”

Although science has placed much focus on adult sufferers of PTSD, few investigations to date have examined the adolescent population. In a paper published in JAMA on Christmas Eve, Foa and her colleagues say they’ve got the answer. Far from exacerbating symptoms of PTSD in the fragile psyche of the adolescent girl, the aggressive new therapy was found to be of greater help than other types of “supportive” counseling.

In a single-blind, randomized clinical trial, investigators followed 61 adolescent girls with PTSD from February 2006 to March 2012. The girls received 14 therapy sessions lasting 60 to 90 minutes in a community health clinic, with follow-up sessions three, six, and 12 months afterward. In designing the study, the investigators say they tailored the therapy — proven in adults — for the developmental stage of adolescence.

Foa and her colleagues also pointed to the practical nature of the modified therapy, which requires no prior training for clinicians. “Another key finding of this research was that prolonged therapy can be administered in a community setting by professionals with no prior training in evidence-based treatments and can have a positive impact on this population,” Foa said.

Indeed, the psychological repercussions of sexual traumas experienced by young girls represents a large, community-based problem. In the United States, nearly one in five women says they’ve been raped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those victims, 42.2 percent of them were raped as girls.

Aside from the psychological disease burden, women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to experience heart attack and stroke, and to have higher cholesterol levels.

Source: Foa EB, McLean CP, Capaldi S, Rosenfield D. Prolonged Exposure vs. Supportive Counseling For Sexual Abuse-Related PTSD In Adolescent Girls, A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2013.