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PTSD and Physical Health

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Updated January 25, 2010

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experience a number of psychological difficulties such as depression, other anxiety disorders, and substance use-related problems; however, in addition to these psychological difficulties, individuals with PTSD may also be more likely to experience physical health problems.

PTSD and Physical Health Problems

Studies have found that compared to those without PTSD, people with PTSD are more likely to experience a number of physical health problems including for example:

  • Arthritis

  • Heart-related problems and disease

  • Respiratory system-related problems and disease

  • Digestive problems and disease

  • Reproductive system-related problems

  • Diabetes

  • Pain

Given the number of physical health problems found to be associated with PTSD, it is not surprising that people with PTSD have been found to use and seek health care more than people without PTSD.

How are PTSD and Physical Health Problems Related?

Studies have found that there is something unique to PTSD (as opposed to simply being exposed to a traumatic event) that puts people at risk for developing physical health problems, and a number of theories have been proposed to explain this connection.

It has been suggested that a variety of factors interact to increase risk for physical health problems among people with PTSD. PTSD puts tremendous physical and emotional strain on a person. For example, as mentioned previously, people with PTSD tend to experience a variety of stressful psychological difficulties such as depression and other anxiety disorders. In addition, people with PTSD may engage in more risky and health-compromising behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use. The hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD may also put someone in a constant state of stress and anxiety. All of these factors may then combine to put tremendous strain and stress on a person's body, increasing the risk for physical health problems and illness.

Improving Your Health

If you have PTSD, your physical health may be at risk. That's why it is important to seek out treatment for PTSD. The Anxiety Disorder Association of America provides a list of therapists across the United States who specialize in the treatment of PTSD. By reducing the psychological difficulties associated with PTSD, you may also reduce your risk for a number of physical health problems.

As part of your treatment for PTSD, it may also be important to start focusing on living a healthier lifestyle. A healthy diet, exercise, and eliminating bad habits (for example, stopping smoking) may not only improve your health, but also your mood. Behavioral activation is one technique that provides an easy way to increase the level of activity in your life, help you meet your goals, and can reduce PTSD symptoms.

Sources:

Boscarino, J.A. (1997). Diseases among men 20 years after exposure to severe stress: Implications for clinical research and medical care. Psychosomatic Medicine, 59, 605-614.

Boscarino, J.A., & Chang, J. (1999). Electrocardiogram abnormalities among men with stress-related psychiatric disorders: Implications for coronary heart disease and clinical research. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 21, 227-234.

Clum, G.A., Calhoun, K.S., & Kimerling, R. (2000). Associations among symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder and self-reported health in sexually assaulted women. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 188, 671-678.

Goodwin, R.D., & Davidson, J.R. (2005). Self-reported diabetes and posttraumatic stress disorder among adults in the community. Preventive Medicine, 40, 570-575.

Green, B.L., & Kimerling, R. (2004). Trauma, PTSD, and health status. In P.P. Schurr & B.L. Green (Eds.), Physical health consequences of exposure to extreme stress (pp. 13-42). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Kimerling, R., Clum, G.A., & Wolfe, J. (2000). Relationships among trauma exposure, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and self-reported health in women: Replication and extension. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13, 115-128.

Norman, S.B., Means-Christensen, A.J., Craske, M.G., Sherbourne, C.D., Roy-Byrne, P.P., & Stein, M.B. (2006). Associations between psychological trauma and physical illness in primary care. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 19, 461-470.

Schnurr, P.P., Friedman, M.J., Sengupta, A., Jankowski, M.K., & Holmes, T. (2000). PTSD and utilization of medical treatment services among male Vietnam veterans. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 188, 496-504.

Schnurr, P.P., & Green, B.L. (2004). Understanding relationships among trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and health outcomes. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 20, 18-29.

Schnurr, P.P., Spiro III, A., & Paris, A.H. (2000). Physician-diagnosed medical disorders in relation to PTSD symptoms in older male military veterans. Health Psychology, 19, 91-97.

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