Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by a severe traumatic experience and can affect your body, as well as causing mental impairment or anguish.
- People with PTSD may suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), which can potentially cause a heart attack or stroke.
- Studies have shown a potential link between PTSD and an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
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People who experience a traumatic event, especially early in life, may be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD affects 3.5% of American adults, with one in 11 being diagnosed at some point in their lifetime. Though it’s a mental health condition, it can also affect your physical health, leading to a number of complications that can form over time.
Business Insider spoke with Dr. Michael Murphy, the medical director at River Oaks Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers treatment facility, about some of the physical ways that PTSD may affect a person’s body.
“I believe people with PTSD, just like people with adverse childhood experiences, have been shown to have a shorter life expectancy,” Murphy told Business Insider. “Just having trauma and adverse experiences, especially early in life, leads people to have poorer health later in life and a shorter life expectancy.”
Here are some ways PTSD can affect the body.
People with PTSD may experience muscle and joint aches.
According to PTSD UK, muscle pain is a common symptom of PTSD. “[The] anxiety and hyper-vigilance that often comes with PTSD can increase the tension you put on your muscles and joints in general,” according to the organization’s website.
Murphy added, “Much like the immune system reacts to a virus and causes damage, the brain can overreact and stay in a perpetual state of hyperarousal and fear that can lead to a cascade of symptoms.”
It may also cause inflammation in organs and gastric issues.
Murphy said that inescapable trauma can result in heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol and pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. This can cause organ inflammation.
“There’s multiple organ systems that can be affected by the chemicals that are produced when someone is stressed,” Murphy said. “When these [hormones and chemicals] are left in a chronically elevated state, they can do subtle damage to the body over time.”
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health in which researchers examined 4,076 Danish participants who had PTSD over a 16-year period, there is an association between the disorder and the development of gastric disorders, like ulcers. People with PTSD were at a 25% higher risk of developing a gastric disorder.
There may be a correlation between PTSD and migraines.
According to Psychology Today, a 2015 study found a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and migraine headaches. The rates of migraines were higher in those who experienced adverse childhood experiences versus other forms of abuse.
According to research by the National Institutes of Health, 69% of participants who had both episodic migraines and PTSD reported experiencing symptoms of the disorder before the on-set of a headache. According to Very Well Mind, why people with PTSD experience migraines isn’t exactly known, but it may be due to the high levels of stress and emotional strain they experience.
PTSD can lead to substance abuse problems, which can worsen a person’s health in many ways.
“There’s higher rates of substance use in people who have had trauma,” Murphy said. “And substance use itself can do damage to the body, and so for some people, it’s a double problem in terms of the trauma itself causing hyperarousal and hormone imbalances, and the substance then exacerbating it.”
Murphy said people with PTSD may start using substances like alcohol or sedatives to self-medicate from symptoms of the disorder, but over time they become more dependent on them, which can damage their bodies in myriad ways.
People with PTSD may be at risk for hypertension, which can increase one’s risk of a heart attack.
Murphy said people with PTSD, or who had adverse childhood experiences, are at risk for hypertension or high blood pressure.
“They lead to elevations in chemicals in the body and hormones that are associated with a fight or flight response, and that leads to some damage to blood vessels in the body Post-traumatic,” he said. “That can make people more likely to have a heart attack or stroke — even decades later. It may also increase the risk of certain types of cancer,” he continued.
According to Premier Health, people with PTSD were at an increased risk for a heart attack or stroke because their blood vessels don’t expand as they normally should.
They are also at risk of having a stroke.
According to a study by the American Heart Association, researchers examined 987,855 young and middle-aged veterans over a 13-year period and found a link between PTSD and ischemic strokes — they found a significant increase in risk of a stroke among those who had PTSD.
Symptoms caused by PTSD may leave people more susceptible to illnesses like the coronavirus.
Murphy said Post-traumatic people who have hypertension may be more susceptible to serious complications with diseases like the coronavirus.
“I think with the COVID-19 virus specifically, it’s less that your immune system is more vulnerable and more that, for many of the people with serious complications, there’s been chronic damage to their blood vessels over time,” Murphy said.
There may be a correlation between PTSD and obesity.
According to the National Institutes of Health, PTSD has been linked to obesity, as well as metabolic dysfunction. Studies suggest this may be due to stress hormones and Post-traumatic disrupted circadian rhythms affecting the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” in the brain.
Metabolic dysfunction and stress can change consumptive behaviors, which can lead to an increased consumption of foods with high calorie content.
Studies have shown a potential link between type 2 diabetes and PTSD.
According to research by Science Daily, PTSD is associated with an increased of type 2 diabetes. Possible causes include a higher prevalence of obesity, glucose deregulation, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and depression.
According to research by the National Institutes of Health, women who have PTSD were at twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who had no exposure to trauma.
People with PTSD may have insomnia or trouble sleeping.
“Sometimes people have trauma associated with nighttime,” Murphy said. “Going to sleep and being unsafe,Post-traumatic meaning being unconscious, is scary — so they avoid going to sleep.” People with PTSD are also prone to having nightmares, making going to sleep frightening for that reason, as well.
The lack of sleep, coupled with other PTSD symptoms, can lead to feeling fatigued or tired the next day — or even longer.
People with PTSD may experience fatigue due to an overload of their adrenal system, which produces the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline.
Researchers from the CDC found an association between stress, childhood trauma, and chronic fatigue syndrome in adults.Post-traumatic Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by unexplained fatigue that lasts for at least six months. According to the study, chronic fatigue syndrome “may result from the brain’s inability to cope with challenging experiences.”
Recovery from PTSD includes addressing both mental and physical symptoms.
Family members of people with PTSD should be patient but also present for their loved ones, Murphy said. Realizing physical symptoms is also important when it comes to treatment.
“I think it cannot be stressed enough that there is a mind-body connection,” Murphy said. “I think that people have often thought of trauma as a psychological phenomenon, and they have to realize that every psychological experience has an impact on your body whether it’s positive or negative.”
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