Tag Archives: post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

In prior posts, we’ve examined how the demands of practicing render physicians and dentists uniquely susceptible to anxiety and depression.  In this post, we are going to examine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), another serious condition that often affects doctors—particularly doctors who work in high stress environments and who are repeatedly exposed to trauma on a daily basis.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder caused by exposure to a shocking or dangerous event.  Although most people who experience a traumatic event experience an immediate emotional response when they are experiencing the event, those who develop PTSD continue to experience the symptoms of exposure to trauma after the event, and feel stressed or panicked even when there is no danger.  While some of the symptoms are similar to other anxiety disorders, PTSD is categorized as a particular type of anxiety that is caused by a specific external catalyst.  The onset of PTSD can occur within months after a traumatic event; however, in some cases symptoms may not appear until years later.

Prevalence

PTSD is associated with those who have been exposed to a traumatic event, such as combat, violence, serious accidents, or natural disasters.   Approximately seven to eight percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, with about eight million adults suffering from PTSD in any given year.[1]

PTSD can be caused by one event, or by prolonged exposure to trauma over time.  This exposure can be experienced directly, and through indirect exposure (i.e. witnessing the event).[2]

Many physicians, depending on their specialty, interact on a daily basis with traumatic situations from early on in their careers, and sometimes encounter events where patients die or are seriously harmed in a way that is very distressing to a practitioner.  Significantly, research has shown that 13 percent of medical residents meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.[3]  Emergency physicians, physicians practicing in remote or under-served areas, and physicians in training (i.e. residents) are particularly prone to developing PTSD.[4]

The prevalence of PTSD is also substantially elevated in individuals who are also suffering from chronic pain.  While only 3.5 % of the general population has a current PTSD diagnosis, one study found that 35% of a sample of chronic pain patients had PTSD.  Another study of patients with chronic back pain showed that 51% experienced significant PTSD symptoms.  In instances where the chronic pain is caused by the traumatic event (e.g. someone involved in a motorcycle accident or someone injured during the course of a violent crime), the pain can serve as a reminder of the event and worsen the PTSD.[5]

Symptoms

Physicians who suffer from PTSD may lose this ability to confidently react, which can impair their ability to safely practice.  Untreated, PTSD can also lead to a marked decline in quality of life, and potentially other mental health disorders or medical issues.  Some common symptoms of PTSD include:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Physical reactions or emotional distress after exposure to reminders
  • Intrusive thoughts

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders to the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Arousal and reactivity symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense and “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Being irritable or aggressive
  • Heightened startle reaction

Cognition and mood symptoms:

  • Trouble remembering key events of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about the world, and oneself
  • Distorted feelings of guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Negative affect

Diagnosis

PTSD is typically diagnosed by a clinical psychiatrist or psychologist.  A diagnosis is made when an individual meets the criteria for exposure, and has at least one re-experiencing symptom, one avoidance symptom, two arousal and reactivity symptoms, and two cognition and mood symptoms.

Treatments

Some of treatments that are used, either alone or in conjunction, to treat PTSD include;

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medication
  • Medication for insomnia

The intensity and duration of PTSD symptoms varies.  Individuals who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to a treatment provider right away.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and have yet to consult with a doctor, do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

 

References:

Medscape, http://emedicine.medscape.com

National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov

WebMD, http://www/webmd.com/

[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, How Common Is PTSD?, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp

[2] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, PTSD and DSM-5, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/PTSD-overview/dsm5_criteria_ptsd.asp

[3] Myers, Michael, MD, PTSD in Physicians, Psych Congress Network, Sept. 16, 2015, https://www.psychcongress.com/blog/ptsd-physicians

[4] Lazarus, A., Traumatized by practice: PTSD in physicians, J Med. Pract. Manage., 2014 Sept-Oct; 30(2): 131-4.

[5] DeCarvalho, Lorie T., PhD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, The Experience of Chronic Pain and PTSD: A Guide for Health Care Providers,  https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/chronic-pain-ptsd-providers.asp

Chronic Pain and Anxiety Disorders

Chronic pain by itself is often debilitating, and the struggle to obtain a correct diagnosis, effective pain management, and ongoing treatment can be stressful and overwhelming.  As we discussed in a previous post, depression often co-occurs with chronic pain, and can further complicate treatment.  The same is true of anxiety disorders.

Chronic Pain Disorders Associated with the Co-Occurrence of Anxiety

Like depression, anxiety is more likely to co-occur with certain conditions, such as:

It is no secret that physicians and dentists have stressful and demanding careers.  One Cardiff University study showed that of 2,000 British doctors, at various stages of their careers, 60% had experienced mental illness.[1]  Often practitioners ignore or fight through both chronic pain and anxiety and show up to work, to the point of endangering themselves or others before acknowledging their disability or seeking adequate treatment.

While anxiety alone can result in an inability to practice, either indefinitely or in the short-term, it is also quite common in those suffering from chronic pain to experience an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety disorders are also the most common type of psychiatric disorders in the United States, with 19 million adults affected.[2]

Chronic Pain and Anxiety—Worse Together

Facing a long-term or permanent disability can be anxiety provoking for a physician, who must (1) face giving up a career he or she invested so much time and financial resources to establish; (2) seek a correct diagnosis, course of treatment, and adequate pain management; and (3) often struggle with adapting to the loss of a previously enjoyed quality of life.  Conversely, chronic pain is also common in people with anxiety disorders,[3]  with up to 70% of people with certain medical conditions (including hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis) had an anxiety disorder first.[4]

Regardless of whether anxiety or chronic pain came first, individuals suffering from anxiety can experience pain that is particularly intense and hard to treat.[5]  In a 2013 study, 45% of 250 patients who had moderate to severe chronic joint or back pain screened positive for at least one of the common anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD).  Further, those that had an anxiety disorder reported significantly worse pain and health-related quality of life than their counterparts without anxiety.[6]

Symptoms of Anxiety[7]

There are several anxiety disorders and, while the below list is by no means exhaustive, sufferers of anxiety often exhibit the following symptoms:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Restlessness, feeling wound-up or on edge, irritability, muscle tension
  • Being easily fatigued and problems with sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank

Panic Disorder

  • Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
  • Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
  • Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
  • Avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past

Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Feeling highly anxious about being around other people (including having a hard time talking to them, blushing, sweating, trembling, or feeling sick to your stomach)
  • Feeling self-conscious in front of others and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed or rejected, or fearful of offending others
  • Worrying before an event and/or avoiding places where there are other people
  • Having a hard time making and keeping friends

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, frightening thoughts, angry outbursts
  • Avoiding places, events, objects, thoughts, or feelings that are reminders of the traumatic experience and trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Being easily startled and feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Negative feelings about oneself or the world, and distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  • Fear of germs or contamination
  • Unwanted or forbidden thoughts, including aggressive thoughts towards others or self
  • Having things symmetrical or in perfect order; excessive clearing and/or hand washing; ordering and arranging things in a precise way; repeatedly checking on things; compulsive counting

Treatments for Anxiety

Some of the treatments that have been successful in addressing anxiety in those with chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Psychodynamic therapy (talk therapy)
  • Support groups
  • Relaxation or meditation training
  • Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and hypnosis
  • Exercise
  • Medication

Chronic pain sufferers who recognize any of the above-referenced symptoms in themselves should talk to their doctor to address these serious issues.

[1] Michael Brooks, Why doctors’ mental health should be a concern for us all, NewStatesmen, April 11, 2016, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2016/04/why-doctors-mental-health-should-be-concern-us-all

[2] What are Anxiety Disorders?, Global Medical Education, https://www.gmeded.com/gme-info-graphics/what-are-anxiety-disorders

[3] Chronic Pain, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, April, 2016, https://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/chronic-pain

[4] Global Medical Education, Supra.

[5] Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D., The pain-anxiety-depression connection, Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection

[6] Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, Chronic pain sufferers likely to have anxiety, ScienceDaily, May 8, 2013, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130508213112.htm

[7] Definitions according to National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml