Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that is characterized by flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia and other distressing problems. The symptoms are caused by the experience or witnessing of a tragic event, such as a house fire, severe injury or combat situation.
PTSD can be extremely debilitating, causing individuals major struggles in daily life. Many who suffer from the disorder have difficulty maintaining employment and find that even basic self-care is challenging.
A recent study conducted at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) examined whether PTSD may be a brain disorder that impacts other major areas of health, resulting in issues across body systems and causing lifelong problems.
Lead author Paul Schulz, M.D. associate professor of neurology at the UTHealth Medical School, explains that the impact of PTSD on the body is becoming better understood. Research has expanded experts’ knowledge of the disorder and led them to believe that PTSD isn’t only involved in affecting psychological health, but possibly major physical health issues too.
Dr. Schulz has 25 years of experience treating soldiers diagnosed with PTSD at VA Medical Centers. He now sees patients at the neurological center connected with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.
Research has shown than when PTSD is present in a patient, they are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes, drug abuse, alcohol use and depression.
In his work, Dr. Schulz treats patients who have experienced traumas from injury due to a motor vehicle accident to surviving a house fire. He explains that the injury can be healed but the brain may continue to react from the tragedy.
Studying the ways that PTSD impacts the brain in situations involving civilian tragedies may also translate to helping military personnel who suffer under the disorder at a high rate. The civilian patients may be helpful in providing insight for treating military personnel. In civilian cases, doctors treat PTSD immediately after the trauma, where military personnel are treated for PTSD after deployment has ended.
By learning more about PTSD and how to treat it with experiences treating civilians within hours or even minutes of the trauma, they may be able to impact the lifelong problems associated with PTSD, problems that can significantly impact the quality of life for an individual.
The study involved 400 patients who were victims of a serious trauma. Within that group, 80 individuals with PTSD were identified, from which the researchers are seeking to determine why PTSD developed in those individuals versus the 320 that did not get PTSD.
A second half of the study will attempt to use risk factors to help identify 400 new patients with trauma and treat them in an attempt to prevent PTSD. The phase will include brain scans at the time of the trauma and one year following.
The researchers believe that some parts of the brain may shrink as a result of the development of PTSD. If the brain scans detect this pattern, there may be therapies tested to determine whether PTSD can be prevented.