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PTSD: A Growing Epidemic

Soldier looking off into the sunset

Photo: iStock

Years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ) among military personnel to the attention of the American people as never before. But PTSD is also found among survivors of natural disasters, victims of crime, and many others who have experienced traumatic events.

Fast Facts

  • PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults.
  • PTSD can occur at any age.
  • Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, and there is some evidence that the potential for the disorder may run in families.
  • PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders.
  • Members of the military exposed to war/combat and other groups at high risk for trauma exposure are at risk for developing PTSD .
  • Among veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD and mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI) are often linked and their symptoms may overlap. Blast waves from explosions can cause TBI, rattling the brain inside the skull.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a terrifying ordeal involving physical harm or the threat of physical harm. You don't have to be physically hurt to get PTSD. You can get it after you see others—a friend, a family member, even a stranger—harmed or threatened.

War veterans brought PTSD to public attention. But PTSD can stem from traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. The majority of people exposed to such events experience some symptoms of distress (sleep problems, jumpiness). Most fully recover in a few weeks or months. PTSD is currently the subject of many research studies that are funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

People with PTSD may become emotionally numb, especially in relation to people with whom they used to be close. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy. They may startle easily or be irritable, become aggressive, and may have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. They avoid situations that remind them of the original incident, and often find anniversaries of the incident to be very difficult.

Soldiers standing in line at attention.

Photo: iStock

PTSD symptoms seem to be worse if they were triggered deliberately by another person, as in a mugging or rape. Most PTSD sufferers repeatedly relive the trauma in their thoughts during the day and in nightmares when they sleep. These are called flashbacks. Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings. They are often triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a door slamming, a car backfiring, or being in a place that looks like where the trauma took place. A person having a flashback is likely to feel the emotions and physical feelings that occurred when the incident happened despite no longer being in danger.

Not every traumatized person develops full-blown or even minor PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the incident, but occasionally may only emerge years later. They must last more than a month to be considered PTSD. The condition varies from person to person. Some people recover within months, while others have symptoms for much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.

To Find Out More

PTSD and the Military

Today, hundreds of thousands of service men and women and recent military veterans have seen combat. Many have been shot at, seen their buddies killed, or witnessed death up close. These are types of events that can lead to PTSD.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts:

  • Almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans
  • As many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans
  • 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan
  • 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans

Neuroscience and PTSD Treatments

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum believes current research is leading to better treatment of PTSD and may one day help to prevent it. Rothbaum is Professor in Psychiatry and Director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at the Emory University School of Medicine. She notes that the Institute of Medicine recently reported that only exposure treatment, a type of therapy in which PTSD patients confront their traumatic memories through talking, has sufficient evidence to recommend it.

With funding from NIMH, she is studying how D-cycloserine, an antibiotic, affects how Iraq war veterans experience fear. "We know how fear is turned on and off, where in the brain it occurs, and what drugs facilitate or inhibit it," she says. "D-cycloserine has been shown to reduce fear and make exposure therapy go faster."

Also with NIMH support, Dr. Rothbaum is beginning to look at ways to change traumatic memories before they are consolidated in the brain, and perhaps prevent PTSD altogether. Her new study will focus on intervening to help rape victims in the emergency room.

"I do think there are things we can do in the immediate aftermath of a trauma that can help," she says.

A woman looking out the window

Photo: iStock

"I was raped when I was 25 years old. For a long time, I spoke about the rape as though it was something that happened to someone else. I was very aware that it had happened to me, but there was just no feeling. Then I started having flashbacks. They kind of came over me like a splash of water. I would be terrified. Suddenly, I was reliving the rape. Every instant was startling. I wasn't aware of anything around me. I was in a bubble, just kind of floating. And it was scary. Having a flashback can wring you out.

"The rape happened the week before Thanksgiving, and I can't believe the anxiety and fear I feel every year around the anniversary date. It's as though I've seen a werewolf. I can't relax, can't sleep, don't want to be with anyone. I wonder whether I'll ever be free of this terrible problem."

—A PTSD patient (Source: NIMH)

Questions to Ask Your Health Care Professional

  • How do I know I have PTSD?
  • Can I be cured?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What should I do if I feel I might hurt myself?
  • Are there things that can make my PTSD symptoms worse?
  • If I have had a blow to the head, is there a chance that I could have PTSD or even mild traumatic brain injury? How can I tell?

Read More "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" Articles
PTSD: A Growing Epidemic / Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment / NIH Research to Results

Winter 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 1 Pages 10 - 14