What is Medical PTSD?
Last updated: October 2021
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is anxiety in the aftermath of a traumatic event. You may think of it happening to a soldier returning from war or a victim of a crime. But it also surfaces in situations where you expect help, not harm, and with chronic conditions like sickle cell.
Defining medical PTSD and trauma
Medical PTSD stems from severe physical or mental pain. It happens in a medical setting like a hospital or doctor’s office. People may also refer to it as medical trauma. When something negative happens to you, trauma is how you emotionally respond to it. Trauma is also what can trigger conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, or ongoing pain.1
PTSD happens less often than trauma. Experts think around 6 percent of men and 10 percent of women will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, trauma affects as many as 60 to 85 percent of people. Experts have found similar rates of trauma in children and their families after a serious illness, injury, or painful medical procedure.2,3
Medical trauma triggers
There are many possible medical trauma triggers. Each is unique to the person experiencing it. Examples include:1
- Receiving a life-threatening diagnosis like cancer
- Knowing (or not knowing) the possible risks of surgery or a procedure
- Being sedated
- Living with pain from an illness or medical procedure
- Being in unfamiliar surroundings like a hospital
- Feeling powerless to make decisions about your own medical care
- Experiencing a medical error
- Living through an unexpected health emergency
Some people report medical trauma after they go for years feeling like doctors do not believe them. This can happen to people with conditions it takes years to properly diagnose.
Signs and symptoms of medical PTSD
After a traumatic experience, PTSD can emerge in a number of ways. Here are some of the signs and symptoms:4,5
Intrusive thoughts. You may often have flashbacks or nightmares about the event. These reminders can cause a serious physical or emotional response. The negative feelings you had during the event could be triggered by something you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.
Avoidance. This is when you try to stop yourself from thinking or talking about the event that caused you trauma. You stay away from people, places, or activities that bring back memories of it. For example, you might avoid returning to the hospital or your doctor.
Changes in thinking and mood. PTSD also changes the way you view yourself and the world around you. You may feel hopeless or have trouble with family and friend connections. You may lose interest in things you once enjoyed. Memory problems are another sign of PTSD – in general, and about the traumatic event. You may lose confidence in the people tasked with your medical care, like doctors and nurses.
Changes in physical and emotional reactions. Also called arousal symptoms, you may feel like you are “on edge.” It is easy to startle or frighten you, and you are always on the lookout for danger. People with PTSD have problems with sleep and focus. They may be easily annoyed, angry, or aggressive. They may engage in harmful behavior like getting drunk.
Healing from medical PTSD
If it is not treated, PTSD can linger for years and even get worse. It impacts your whole life, from personal to professional.
Counseling can help you to process trauma and PTSD and heal from it. A counselor may treat you using cognitive-behavioral therapy with a focus on trauma, as well as other types of psychotherapy. They may also recommend medicine like an antidepressant.
Look for a counselor who is interested in your medical as well as social history. They should ask questions about any problems with a medical procedure, and the emotional and physical impact.
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