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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Virtually any trauma, defined as an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear, may cause PTSD. Such events often include either experiencing or witnessing a severe accident or physical injury, receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis, being the victim of kidnapping or torture, exposure to war combat or to a natural disaster, exposure to other disaster (for example, plane crash) or terrorist attack, being the victim of rape, mugging, robbery, or assault, enduring physical, sexual, emotional, or other forms of abuse, as well as involvement in civil conflict. Although the diagnosis of PTSD currently requires that the sufferer has a history of experiencing a traumatic event as defined here, people may develop PTSD in reaction to events that may not qualify as traumatic but can be devastating life events like divorce or unemployment.

What is posttraumatic stress disorder?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness that usually develops as a result of a terribly frightening, life-threatening, or otherwise highly unsafe experience. PTSD sufferers re-experience the traumatic event or events in some way, tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event (avoidance), and are exquisitely sensitive to normal life experiences (hyperarousal). Although this condition has likely existed since human beings have endured trauma, PTSD has only been recognized as a formal diagnosis since 1980. However, it was called by different names as early as the American Civil War, when combat veterans were referred to as suffering from “soldier’s heart.” In World War I, symptoms that were generally consistent with this syndrome were referred to as “combat fatigue.” Soldiers who developed such symptoms in World War II were said to be suffering from “gross stress reaction,” and many troops in Vietnam who had symptoms of what is now called PTSD were assessed as having “post-Vietnam syndrome.” PTSD has also been called “battle fatigue” and “shell shock.”

Complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) usually results from prolonged exposure to a traumatic event or series thereof and is characterized by long-lasting problems with many aspects of emotional and social functioning.

Statistics regarding this illness indicate that approximately 7%-8% of people in the United States will likely develop PTSD in their lifetime, with the lifetime occurrence (prevalence) in combat veterans and rape victims ranging from 10% to as high as 30%. Somewhat higher rates of this disorder have been found to occur in African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans compared to Caucasians in the United States. Some of that difference is thought to be due to higher rates of dissociation soon before and after the traumatic event (peritraumatic), a tendency for individuals from minority ethnic groups to blame themselves, have less social support, and an increased perception of racism for those ethnic groups, as well as differences between how ethnic groups may express distress. In military populations, many of the differences have been found to be the result of increased exposure to combat at younger ages for minority groups. Other important facts about PTSD include the estimate of 5 million people who suffer from PTSD at any one time in the United States and the fact that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.

Almost half of individuals who use outpatient mental-health services have been found to suffer from PTSD. As evidenced by the occurrence of stress in many individuals in the United States in the days following the 2001 terrorist attacks, not being physically present at a traumatic event does not guarantee that one cannot suffer from traumatic stress that can lead to the development of PTSD.

PTSD statistics in children and teens reveal that up to more than 40% have endured at least one traumatic event, resulting in the development of PTSD in up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys. On average, 3%-6% of high school students in the United States and as many as 30%-60% of children who have survived specific disasters have PTSD. Up to 100% of children who have seen a parent killed or endured sexual assault or abuse tend to develop PTSD, and more than one-third of youths who are exposed to community violence (for example, a shooting, stabbing, or other assault) will suffer from the disorder.

What are the effects of PTSD?

Although not all individuals who have been traumatized develop PTSD, there can be significant physical consequences of being traumatized. For example, research indicates that people who have been exposed to an extreme stressor sometimes have a smaller hippocampus (a region of the brain that plays a role in memory) than people who have not been exposed to trauma. This is significant in understanding the effects of trauma in general and the impact of PTSD specifically since the hippocampus is the part of the brain that is thought to have an important role in developing new memories about life events. Also, whether or not a traumatized person goes on to develop PTSD, they seem to be at risk for higher use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.

Untreated PTSD can have devastating, far-reaching consequences for sufferers’ functioning and relationships, their families, and for society. Women who were sexually abused at earlier ages are more likely to develop complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Babies that are born to mothers who suffer from this illness during pregnancy are more likely to experience a change in at least one chemical in their body that makes it more likely (predisposes) the baby to develop PTSD later in life. Individuals who suffer from this illness are at risk of having more medical problems, as well as trouble reproducing. Emotionally, PTSD sufferers may struggle more to achieve as good an outcome from mental-health treatment as that of people with other emotional problems. In children and teens, PTSD can have significantly negative effects on their social and emotional development, as well as on their ability to learn.

Economically, PTSD can have significant consequences as well. As of 2005, more than 200,000 veterans were receiving disability compensation for this illness, for a cost of $4.3 billion. This represents an 80% increase in the number of military people receiving disability benefits for PTSD and an increase of 149% in the amount of disability benefits paid compared to those numbers five years earlier.

What causes PTSD?

Virtually any trauma, defined as an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear, may cause PTSD. Such events often include either experiencing or witnessing a severe accident or physical injury, receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis, being the victim of kidnapping or torture, exposure to war combat or to a natural disaster, exposure to other disaster (for example, plane crash) or terrorist attack, being the victim of rape, mugging, robbery, or assault, enduring physical, sexual, emotional, or other forms of abuse, as well as involvement in civil conflict. Although the diagnosis of PTSD currently requires that the sufferer has a history of experiencing a traumatic event as defined here, people may develop PTSD in reaction to events that may not qualify as traumatic but can be devastating life events like divorce or unemployment.

What are the risk factors and protective factors for PTSD?

Issues that tend to put people at higher risk for developing PTSD include increased duration of a traumatic event, higher number of traumatic events endured, higher severity of the trauma experienced, having an emotional condition prior to the event, or having little social support in the form of family or friends. In addition to those risk factors, children and adolescents, females, and people with learning disabilities or violence in the home seem to have a greater risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event.

While disaster-preparedness training is generally seen as a good idea in terms of improving the immediate physical safety and logistical issues involved with a traumatic event, such training may also provide important preventive factors against developing PTSD. That is as evidenced by the fact that those with more professional-level training and experience (for example, police, firefighters, mental-health professionals, paramedics, and other medical professionals) tend to develop PTSD less often when coping with disaster than those without the benefit of such training or experience.

Some medications have been found to help prevent the development of PTSD. Some medicines that treat depression, decrease the heart rate, or increase the action of other body chemicals are thought to be effective tools in the prevention of PTSD when given in the days immediately after an individual experiences a traumatic event.

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

The three groups of symptoms that are required to assign the diagnosis of PTSD are

•recurrent re-experiencing of the trauma (for example, troublesome memories, flashbacks that are usually caused by reminders of the traumatic events, recurring nightmares about the trauma and/or dissociative reliving of the trauma),

 

•avoidance to the point of having a phobia of places, people, and experiences that remind the sufferer of the trauma and a general numbing of emotional responsiveness, and

 

•chronic physical signs of hyperarousal, including sleep problems, trouble concentrating, irritability, anger, poor concentration, blackouts or difficulty remembering things, increased tendency and reaction to being startled, and hypervigilance to threat.
The emotional numbing of PTSD may present as a lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed (anhedonia), emotional deadness, distancing oneself from people, and/or a sense of a foreshortened future (for example, not being able to think about the future or make future plans, not believing one will live much longer). At least one re-experiencing symptom, three avoidance/numbing symptoms, and two hyperarousal symptoms must be present for at least one month and must cause significant distress or functional impairment in order for the diagnosis of PTSD to be assigned. PTSD is considered of chronic duration if it persists for three months or more.

A similar disorder in terms of symptom repertoire is acute stress disorder. The major differences between the two disorders are that acute stress disorder symptoms persist from two days to four weeks, and a fewer number of traumatic symptoms are required to make the diagnosis as compared to PTSD.

In children, re-experiencing the trauma may occur through repeated play that has trauma-related themes instead of through memories, and distressing dreams may have more general content rather than of the traumatic event itself. As in adults, at least one re-experiencing symptom, three avoidance/numbing symptoms, and two hyperarousal symptoms must be present for at least one month and must cause significant distress or functional impairment in order for the diagnosis of PTSD to be assigned. When symptoms have been present for less than one month, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD) can be made.

Symptoms of PTSD that tend to be associated with C-PTSD include: problems regulating feelings, which can result in suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or passive aggressive behaviors; a tendency to forget the trauma or feel detached from one’s life (dissociation) or body (depersonalization); persistent feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt, or being completely different from others; feeling the perpetrator of trauma is all-powerful and preoccupation with either revenge against or allegiance with the perpetrator; and severe change in those things that give the sufferer meaning, like a loss of spiritual faith or an ongoing sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or despair.

How is PTSD assessed?

For individuals who may be wondering if they should seek evaluation for PTSD by their medical or mental-health professional, self-tests may be useful. The National Institute of Mental Health offers a self-test for PTSD. The assessment of PTSD can be difficult for practitioners to make since sufferers often come to the professional’s office complaining of symptoms other than anxiety associated with a traumatic experience. Those symptoms tend to include body symptoms (somatization), depression, or drug addiction. Individuals with PTSD may present with a history of making suicide attempts. In addition to depression and substance abuse disorders, the diagnosis of PTSD often co-occurs (is comorbid with) bipolar disorder (manic depression), eating disorders, and other anxiety disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Most practitioners who examine a child or teenager for PTSD will interview both the parent and the child, usually separately, in order to allow each party to speak freely. Interviewing the child in addition to the adults in their life is quite important given that while the child or adolescent’s parent or guardian may have a unique perspective, there are naturally things the young person may be feeling that the adult is not aware of. Another challenge for diagnosing PTSD in children, particularly in younger children, is that they may express their symptoms differently from adults. For example, they may go backward or regress in their development, become accident-prone, engage in risky behaviors, become clingy, or suffer from more physical complaints as compared to adults with PTSD. Traumatized younger children may also have trouble sitting still, focusing, or managing their impulses and therefore be mistaken as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Sometimes, professionals will use a rating scale or a structured psychiatric interview for children in its entirety or just the portion that assesses PTSD in order to test for PTSD. Examples of such tools include the Diagnostic Interview for Children and Adolescents-Revised (DICA-R), the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children-Version IV (DISC-IV), and the Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia for School Age Children (K-SADS). There are also some PTSD-specific structured interviews, like the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale-Child and Adolescent Version, the Child PTSD Checklist, and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale. For the assessment of the severity of PTSD symptoms in children, structured interviews like the Child Posttraumatic Stress Reaction Index, the Child and Adolescent Trauma Survey, and the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children are sometimes used. The Child Trauma Screening Questionnaire has been found by some professionals to be useful in predicting which children who endure a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD.

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