Facts about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Symptoms, Treatments, Incidence and Co-Morbidity

Depressed girl sitting at the street
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be an extremely debilitating condition that may develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that can trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults such as rape or mugging, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents or military combat.

Who Is at Risk for PTSD?

Military troops who served in Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom; rescue workers involved in the aftermath of disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing; survivors of accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes; immigrants fleeing violence in their countries; survivors of the 1994 California earthquake, the 1997 South Dakota floods, and hurricanes Hugo and Andrew; and people who witness traumatic events are examples of those at risk for developing PTSD.

Families of victims can also develop the disorder.

Fortunately, through research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), effective treatments have been developed to help people with PTSD. Research is also helping scientists better understand the condition and how it affects the brain and the rest of the body. NIMH is conducting a national education program on anxiety disorders, which includes PTSD, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal they went through in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms.

People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common. Most people with PTSD try to avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than 1 month.

How Common Is PTSD?

About 7 or 8 percent of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetimes. A large percentage of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. An estimated 30% of veterans have had PTSD after serving in Vietnam. PTSD has also been detected among veterans of the Persian Gulf War with an estimated 10.1% having suffered from it. In Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, one study showed 13.8% experienced PTSD.

When Does PTSD First Occur?

PTSD can develop at any age, including in childhood. Symptoms typically begin within 3 months of a traumatic event, although occasionally they do not begin until years later. Once PTSD occurs, the severity and duration of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others suffer much longer.

Some studies show that debriefing people very soon after a catastrophic event may reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD. A study of 12,000 schoolchildren who lived through a hurricane in Hawaii found that those who got counseling early on were doing much better 2 years later than those who did not.

What Treatments Are Available for PTSD?

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and exposure therapy, in which the patient repeatedly relives the frightening experience under controlled conditions to help him or her work through the trauma.

Studies have also shown that antidepressants help ease associated symptoms of depression and anxiety and can promote sleep. Scientists are attempting to determine which treatments work best for which type of trauma. Sometimes a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the best route.

There are also clinical trials available through NIMH to help further the study of effective treatments for PTSD. If you're interested in joining one, talk to your doctor to determine the right one for you.

Do Other Illnesses Tend to Accompany PTSD?

Co-occurring depression, alcohol or other substance abuse, or an anxiety disorder are not uncommon in people with PTSD.

The likelihood of treatment success is increased when these other conditions are appropriately identified and treated as well.

Headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, immune system problems, dizziness, chest pain, or discomfort in other parts of the body are common. Often, doctors treat the symptoms without being aware that they stem from PTSD. NIMH, through its education program, is encouraging primary care providers to ask patients about experiences with violence, recent losses, and traumatic events, especially if symptoms keep recurring.

If you think you may have PTSD, talk to your doctor. You will likely be referred to a mental health professional who has had experience treating people with the disorder.





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