Medical Trauma: Signs, Causes, and Treatments

Health scares can be frightening. Have you ever experienced lingering fears or intrusive thoughts after a medical procedure, or a serious medical event like an injury or heart attack? Have you noticed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms after undergoing medical treatment or a hospital stay? Or have you struggled with long-term mental health consequences after enduring the life-threatening illness of a loved one, like your child?

If so, you may be feeling the effects of medical trauma.

We often associate trauma with childhood, frightening events like natural disasters, or ongoing abuse. But, ironically, sometimes we experience trauma through the process of trying to heal. Interactions with medical professionals, as well as interventions such as surgery or routine procedures like childbirth, can leave psychological scars that persist long after the event ends.

In addition, both chronic illnesses and one-time medical crises are often traumatic. Any of these situations can stir up fear and feelings of powerlessness that create the conditions for medical trauma and, in more serious cases, medical PTSD.

As the U.S. population ages and medical interventions become the norm, more people are at risk for medical trauma and medical PTSD than ever before. Click To Tweet

WHAT IS MEDICAL TRAUMA?

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), medical trauma describes “psychological and physiological responses to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and frightening treatment experiences.”

In other words, medical trauma can occur through all types of interactions with the healthcare system and its workers. For example, some patients may feel that they were handled roughly during an examination or procedure. Or the damage may be more subtle—such as feeling unheard when explaining symptoms, or not being taken seriously by a doctor.

In addition, this kind of trauma can go unacknowledged or be dismissed as unimportant, a category called disenfranchised trauma. Being denied or ignored adds another layer of frustration and powerlessness on top of the original issue.

Medical trauma can also occur through the onset of medical conditions themselves, especially in cases of life-threatening illness. For example, undergoing surgery, experiencing a heart attack, or coping with cancer can all create trauma in the body.

Because these are serious shocks that also may involve lengthy treatments and/or recovery time, it’s no surprise that they could create longer-term mental health symptoms.

THE GROWING PREVALENCE OF MEDICAL TRAUMA

Though it is lesser-known, medical trauma can be fairly common among those affected by serious illness or accidents. It can be especially devastating for children and their families.

The ISTSS estimates that 80% of ill or injured children and their families experience traumatic stress reactions after a medical trauma. Roughly 20% to 30% of these parents and 15% to 25% of children experience traumatic stress that persists over time.

Adults can be deeply affected by their own medical conditions, too. About 1/3 of those who are traumatically injured, and 20% to 30% of ICU patients, experience medical PTSD or depression symptoms afterward.

Ideally, medical trauma will receive more attention in the future, as obtaining medical care is increasingly the norm for U.S. citizens. According to 2022 stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 83.4% of adults and 93.9% of children had visited a doctor or other healthcare professional in the past year.

America also has a large aging population, meaning that medical visits are likely to grow. Researchers have projected that the majority of the 50-and-older population—fast increasing in the United States—among all races will have at least 1 chronic disease by 2050. And with ongoing societal issues like medical personnel shortages and burnout, quality of care can suffer.

Meanwhile, a growing older population is likely to increase one-time medical incidents, making traumatic events like strokes or heart attacks more common. Stats like these point to a growing potential for the various forms of medical trauma.

MEDICAL TRAUMA SYMPTOMS

The symptoms of medical trauma, like other kinds of emotional trauma, are unique to the individual. Some people struggle with lingering and unwelcome thoughts or memories of the medical event (such as getting a diagnosis or receiving treatment).

People may experience significant upset when faced with future medical appointments or avoid them altogether. Conversely, they may seek out medical appointments more than necessary—an act of hypervigilance, a symptom often associated with trauma.

In the case of medical PTSD, symptoms persist over time, even after the event or illness has passed.

Medical events can take a physical and psychological toll on the patient in a variety of ways, including:

  • Depression, grief (including anticipatory grief), and anxiety
  • Loss of identity after a life-changing illness
  • Changes in quality of life (such as loss of autonomy or mobility)
  • Struggles within relationships or work settings
  • Somatic disturbances (such as chronic pain)

As a result, patients may struggle with sleep interruptions, substance abuse, lack of focus, irritability, gastrointestinal issues, or panic attacks, to name just a few possibilities. The potential responses to traumatic experiences are numerous, so it’s important for individuals to receive a targeted treatment plan that takes their specific symptoms into account.

TREATMENT FOR MEDICAL TRAUMA

Like other types of trauma, medical trauma and medical PTSD can respond well with a variety of treatments. First, a brain SPECT scan can help locate patterns in the brain that are associated with emotional trauma.

Then, to address the issue, one or more of these effective therapies (all of which are medication-free) can be implemented:

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is often recommended for people who have faced emotional trauma and challenging life events. This psychotherapy technique has been shown to help with the anxiety, depression, and PTSD that can arise as a result of trauma.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients recognize their negative and harmful thought and behavior patterns. They learn how to question them, then replace them with more positive or neutral thoughts. This approach has been shown in numerous studies to be helpful for mental health conditions, including PTSD.
  • Neurofeedback, also called EEG biofeedback, is an interactive, noninvasive treatment that helps patients increase self-control over certain aspects of their brain function. Neurofeedback can help reduce mental health symptoms and create a more balanced brain.
  • Somatic therapy examines how traumatic events are stored in the body. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress shows that it may be an effective treatment for PTSD. This approach utilizes body awareness and techniques to regulate the high arousal that accompanies disturbing memories of trauma.

RAISING AWARENESS OF MEDICAL TRAUMA

The fact that we’re living longer than ever and can take advantage of always-evolving medical technologies to improve our quality of life is certainly something to celebrate. But in this modern-day reality, we may also pay a price.

As the U.S. population ages and medical interventions become the norm, more people are at risk for medical trauma and medical PTSD than ever before. It’s important that we educate ourselves about these conditions and understand the symptoms so we and our loved ones can get help when needed.

After all, to obtain optimal quality of life, our mental health must take just as much priority as our physical health.

 

Emotional trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 866-411-4513 or visit our contact page here.

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