PTSD Can Develop After a Life Threatening Illness

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which is triggered by some sort of traumatizing life event. Violent events such as combat, assault, robbery and rape can trigger the condition. So also can intense experiences like natural disasters or automobile accidents. In fact, learning that you have a life-threatening illness and dealing with the intensive treatment it requires can also precipitate PTSD. Studies show that 25 to 30 percent of those who undergo a major stress event will also develop PTSD.

Although the risk of developing PTSD due to a critical illness is less than that of developing the disorder from other trauma experience, (less than 32 percent versus 35 to 47 percent), medical stress can still pose a substantial risk. Learning more about which medical patients are most at risk and what can be done to mitigate those risks has been behind several studies comparing the two antecedents to PTSD. Some studies have focused on what is most distressing about certain diseases while others have examined what might prevent medical stress from morphing into PTSD.

One study looked at patients with life-threatening conditions such as HIV, heart transplant and cancer. In each of these situations the patient is confronted with a stressful medical condition which could end their life. The study found that while cancer treatment can deepen the stress of just having the disease the majority of cancer patients nevertheless were able to successfully manage their stress. Another, more recent study among cancer patients found that they were no more prone to PTSD than the non-cancer population.

In the case of HIV, studies showed that 30 percent of males and 42 percent of females who were HIV positive also showed signs of PTSD. This disease is life-threatening and often carries a stigma that can be stressful for the remainder of the patient’s lifetime. The findings have been challenged somewhat since they were based on a non-PTSD specific questionnaire. More specific examination needs to be done which can factor out other potential traumas which may contribute to a person’s onset of PTSD.

A separate study took a look at patients who had spent time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for treatment of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). This study talked with patients five years after their hospitalization to find out if their life-threatening illness had led to PTSD. The researchers found that instances of PTSD were in no way connected to a patient’s severity of ARDS but rather to how well supported and cared for they felt during their ICU stay. Should these findings be replicated in other studies, they could point to quality of care as able to undo the psychological stress which accompanies a critical illness.

In fact, those involved with the medical/PTSD studies say that findings could easily be dependent upon when the testing was done. If patients were interviewed just after receiving their initial diagnosis or when the illness recurred, the self-reporting of PTSD symptoms could easily register higher than during periods when treatment feels positive and prognosis is hopeful.