6 Triggers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H. | Oct 17, 2016 Nov 9, 2016

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What illness can do

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of chronic psychological distress that follows exposure to a traumatic event. It is generally associated with survivors of emotional trauma, but it can also affect people who experience serious or life-threatening medical events. Here are several of the health triggers.

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1. Heart attack

One in eight people who have a heart attack or other acute coronary emergency develops PTSD symptoms, according to a 2012 study published in PLOS One. The researchers also found that, among heart patients with PTSD, the risk of having a second heart attack or dying doubles within three years.

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2. Stroke

Eighteen percent of stroke and mini-stroke survivors reported symptoms of PTSD in a 2013 study published by the British Journal of Health Psychology. Sixty-five percent of patients with PTSD symptoms were less likely to follow their drug regimen—perhaps because it reminded them of their stroke—putting them at risk for another stroke.

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3. Breast cancer

Nearly one in four women with breast cancer developed PTSD symptoms within the first two to three months after diagnosis, says a study published in February 2013 by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Symptoms were most common in black and Asian women and women under 50.

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4. Spine surgery

In a 2013 study published in the journal Spine, 73 patients underwent elective lumbar spinal fusion surgery—a procedure that fuses together two or more vertebrae. Nearly one in five had PTSD symptoms within one year of surgery. Patients who had pre-surgery depression or anxiety were most likely to develop PTSD.

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5. A stay in intensive care

One in three patients admitted to an intensive-care unit with an acute lung injury and placed on a ventilator to aid in breathing had PTSD symptoms up to two years after their stay, according to a recent meta-analysis conducted by Johns Hopkins and published online in March 2013 in the journal Psychological Medicine.

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6. Emergency rooms

In a small study in the February 2013 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, people who spent more than 11 hours waiting in a busy emergency department to be treated for chest pain or a heart attack were more likely to show signs of PTSD. Being in such a situation heightens stress, researchers say.

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What to look for

If you have any of the symptoms below for more than a month, discuss them with your doctor. Successful treatment requires psychotherapy plus medication.

■ Having repeated intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks

■ Avoiding activities because of thoughts and feelings associated with the event

■ Persisting distress that interferes with your emotional state, work, or social relationships