Study Tests Whether Chronic Illness Affects Risk of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is generally associated with significant tragic events. The person suffering from PTSD may have been directly involved with the stressful situation, or they may have been a witness to the events. Traumatic situations leading to PTSD can range from injury due to a car accident to witnessing violence.

In some cases, PTSD can occur following a traumatic medical event, such as delivery of a baby or a stressful medical emergency. However, researchers have found that a diagnosis of a serious condition, such as cancer, can also introduce symptoms of PTSD. In addition, some diagnoses that are not necessarily immediately life-threatening, such as fibromyalgia, can lead to PTSD because of their impairment of everyday life.

While there has been exploration of the association between PTSD and various chronic illnesses, there has been little research into the effects of a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) on the possible development of PTSD.

MS is an illness that can cause physical limitations which affect everyday life, but it also commonly causes significant flare-ups. Those who are diagnosed with MS often experience remissions periods in which they exhibit few symptoms, in addition to times in which they have severe limitations on their activities. The flare-up can last for indeterminate lengths of time, and the symptoms can vary in their severity.

To examine whether individuals diagnosed with MS were at risk for developing PTSD, Alyssa Counsell of the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina in Canada recruited 126 participants diagnosed with MS and recorded each individual’s history of the illness, noting severity of symptoms and duration of flare-ups and remission periods.

In addition, Counsell compiled information about the patients’ other mental health issues, such as the presence of anxiety, depression and other health concerns.

The analysis showed that the participants who had the most severe cases of MS also had the highest symptom levels of PTSD. This was true no matter how long the person had been experiencing symptoms of MS. In addition, those who experienced additional mental health issues were more likely to have PTSD than those who were only diagnosed with MS.

The researchers also noted that among the participants, MS was not universally understood as a traumatic experience. However, among those who did believe it was traumatic, levels of PTSD were higher. Those who, in addition to having MS, had a diagnosis of anxiety problems reported the most symptoms of PTSD. The authors’ note that individuals who did not view their experience of MS as traumatic, may have adjusted after a period of having the diagnosis.

The findings of the study provide new information about a connection between MS and PTSD. The information shows that there may be an increased risk of PTSD for those who live with chronic physical health issues. These individuals may require additional help through mental health care.

The study’s findings are published online in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.