Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Physical Symptoms

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A type of anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects 7.7 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). PTSD results from exposure to a traumatic event, such as violence, war or disasters. For example, the NIMH points out that 19 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD. Both men and women can have PTSD.

PTSD can cause different emotional symptoms. For example, when patients are in the avoidance stage of the disorder, they can become emotionally numb and feel empty. They may have trouble remembering the traumatic event or try to forget thinking about it. Patients may also have depression, in which they have persistent sadness that impairs their functioning. During the hyperarousal phase of PTSD, patients are easily startled and feel tense or on edge. The NIMH adds that when patients are re-experiencing the trauma, they can have bad dreams and frightening thoughts about the event. Besides causing emotional symptoms, PTSD can cause physical symptoms.

PTSD and Physical Symptoms

The physical symptoms of PTSD vary based on whether the patient is re-experiencing the trauma or is hyperaroused. The NIMH notes that when patients are emotionally numb, they do not have any physical symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms of PTSD can be severe. For example, when patients are re-experiencing the traumatic event, they can have strong physical reactions, such as rapid breathing. Some people may start feeling nauseous when reminded of the event, which may prevent them from eating. The other PTSD physical symptoms from re-experiencing the trauma resemble anxiety reactions, according to These include sweating, a pounding heart and muscle tension. These physical symptoms last as long as the patient has the flashback.

When PTSD patients are hyperaroused, they can have problems with sleep. For example, patients can have problems falling asleep or staying asleep. These sleep problems arise from patients being easily startled and vigilant. If the sleep problems persist, patients can feel fatigued or have a lack of energy.

PTSD can result in other physical symptoms. Patients may complain about pain, which can occur with the depression. For example, patients may have chest pain or stomach pain. Nausea may occur with the stomach pain. Headaches can occur as well. These pain symptoms may not go away with pain treatment like medication. points out that some PTSD patients may turn to substances, like alcohol or illicit drugs to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. However, while the substance abuse temporarily reduces the emotional symptoms of PTSD, they worsen the symptoms in the long run. Substance abuse can cause physical symptoms as well. These symptoms include bloodshot eyes, tremors and slurred speech. Patients who abuse alcohol and drugs may also have noticeable changes in appearance, sleep and appetite.


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