How PTSD affects physical health

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.” – Susan Pease Banitt                                                                        

Author, therapist and trauma expert, Susan Pease Banitt has rightly said that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that can have an incapacitating effect on a person’s mental and physical health. There is no greater anguish than being traumatized by a nerve-racking event, day and night, taking the serenity away from an individual’s life.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), about seven or eight out of every 100 individuals will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. A number of factors can increase the risk of developing PTSD in an individual. Generally, such factors are not under a person’s control. For example, direct exposure to a trauma or an accident, demise of a loved one, natural disasters, sexual assault, domestic violence etc. While it is well-known that PTSD can deteriorate one’s mental health, recent studies have proved that it equally affects the physical health as well.

PTSD affects heart health

PTSD may cause poor physical health due to an interaction between psychological and biological mechanisms. Traumatic events may lead to chemical changes in the brain, which, in turn, may make an individual vulnerable to hypertension and heart ailments. Moreover, imbalances in the neurotransmitters can also cause thyroid problems, infections and other immune disorders. Other somatic symptoms that may result from PTSD are headaches, stomach aches, constipation, nausea and muscle pain.

A study published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly in March 2017 found a strong association between PTSD and hypercholesterolemia, insulin resistance, angina, heart attack and emphysema. The study examined the link between 17 inflammation-inducing medical conditions and PTSD, using a representative sample of 1,527 New York City residents.

Another study published in the American Journal of Physiology- Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology in 2015 found that PTSD can cause an overactive nerve activity, dysfunctional immune response and activation of the hormone system that is responsible for controlling blood pressure. “These changes ultimately contribute to the culmination of increased cardiovascular disease risk,” said principal author Chevelle Brudey, from the  department of internal medicine, University of Texas.

The effect of PTSD on the heart was also determined by a study conducted in 2011 by Nassar Ahmadi, Ph.D., M.D., from the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center and his colleagues. This study suggested that PTSD has a strong association with the presence and severity of coronary atherosclerosis and mortality. Though the study suggested a strong association, it did not establish a direct link between atherosclerotic coronary artery disease (CAD) and PTSD.

PTSD can be treated with holistic interventions

PTSD is characterized by symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, frightening thoughts, difficulty in sleeping, continuous tension etc.  Other than the symptoms, there are certain risk factors that might trigger the condition. Some of these are:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Lack of social support
  • Habit of substance abuse
  • Living through the traumatic incident again and again
  • Having mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression
  • Having a family history of mental illness or substance abuse

Trauma after an event can increase the risk to physical health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 3.5 percent of the adult U.S. population suffers from PTSD. Of these, 1.3 percent of the population is diagnosed with severe PTSD.

However, treatment for PTSD is possible and recommended for patients to regain control over their lives. Though psychotherapies like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are the primary treatment modalities, they may be coupled with medicines depending on the severity of the condition.

If you or someone you know is battling PTSD or any other form of mental illness, the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline can help you connect with the best mental health centers. Call our 24/7 helpline number 855-653-8178 or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best facilities offering mental health counseling programs in the U.S.