Recovery From Physical Injury Helps Resolve PTSD Symptoms

People affected by PTSD and certain other mental health problems may see a substantial reduction or complete resolution of their symptoms if they recover from related physical health issues, according to recent results published by a team of American researchers.

Serious, potentially life-threatening physical health problems are known for their ability to act as triggers for the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Critical Care Medicine, researchers from two U.S. universities explored what happens to the PTSD symptoms (and other mental health symptoms) of people who recover from severe physical injury. These researchers concluded that long-term physical recovery significantly improves the odds that affected individuals will no longer have diagnosable related mental health problems.

PTSD and Physical Health Problems

PTSD classically produces four types of symptoms: a loss of control over the body’s inborn “fight-or-flight” stress reaction, a damaging upturn in negative or “down” emotional states, an inability to avoid reliving the events/situations that triggered a traumatic stress response and a strong desire to stay away from anything that mimics, resembles or acts as a reminder of a traumatic event or situation. Exposure to a life-threatening illness is one of the known risk factors for the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, the National Center for PTSD notes. In addition, people exposed to other PTSD risks commonly have higher chances of actually developing the disorder if they’re physically injured during their experiences.

Generally speaking, the odds that a person exposed to traumatic circumstances will develop PTSD increase along with his or her overall number of physical health concerns, whether those concerns appear in the form of acute (short-term) problems like injuries or longer-term problems such as heart disease or chronic lung ailments. Conversely, the presence of PTSD may act as a predictor for the subsequent onset of physical health problems. No one knows for sure if PTSD can actually trigger poor physical health or merely acts as a contributing factor.

Physical Health, Other Mental Health Concerns

There is a well-recognized connection between physical health problems and a number of mental health concerns besides PTSD. For example, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that any person affected by any form of mental illness has a higher chance of experiencing physical health difficulties than a person unaffected by mental illness. There is also a strong connection between physical ailments and serious or severe mental health issues such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Major depression, in particular, has a notable association with a range of serious, chronic physical health concerns.

Can PTSD Improve With Physical Recovery?

In the study published in Critical Care Medicine, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland examined the impact that recovery from short-term, potentially life-threatening physical health problems has on the severity of PTSD symptoms in affected individuals. They also examined the impact that recovery has on symptoms of depression and an anxiety disorder known as generalized anxiety disorder. Specifically, the researchers looked at the mental health impact of recovery from acute lung injury (also known as acute respiratory distress syndrome), a moderate-to-severe condition capable of producing fatal outcomes in large numbers of individuals.

At its beginning, the study had 520 participants. Fully 240 of these individuals died within three months; the researchers tracked the mental health of 95 percent of the survivors for two years. The researchers preliminarily concluded that, during this two-year timeframe, most of the remaining study participants had a cluster of mental health problems that included simultaneous or overlapping symptoms of PTSD, depression and/or generalized anxiety disorder. Simultaneous or overlapping symptoms of all three conditions were relatively common. However, PTSD-related symptoms appeared in the participants substantially more often than the symptoms of either generalized anxiety disorder or depression.

The researchers used a screening tool called the Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) to track improvements in the participants’ physical health. After comparing the results from this tool with the results from the mental health screenings, they concluded that those individuals who recovered most fully from the physical effects of acute lung injury had the highest chances of being free from diagnosable PTSD at the end of two years. The same findings applied to the chances of being free from diagnosable cases of generalized anxiety disorder and depression.

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