What Is Medical Trauma?

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Medical trauma involves a set of negative physical and psychological reactions to medical illness, procedures, and treatments. This type of trauma differs from the trauma sustained in an accident or in something like wartime trauma. Medical trauma stems from a negative internal experience of medical care.

In this article, learn who is at risk for medical trauma and how it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

overwhelmed emergency room in a Texas hospital

Brandon Bell / Getty Images

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

A person might be diagnosed with PTSD when they experience exposure to a traumatic or significantly stressful event or series of events.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), people with PTSD develop specific symptoms after exposure to threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.

The manual lists specific criteria for how a person experiences the traumatic event, including things like flashbacks, avoidance, negative thoughts, and difficultly sleeping. People are only diagnosed with PTSD if they meet the specific criteria. 

Different types of traumatic experiences that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Combat
  • Assault
  • Sexual violence
  • Torture
  • Natural disasters
  • Automobile accidents
  • Witnessing the death or severe injury of another person
  • Onset of life-threatening illnesses

What Is Medical Trauma and Who Is at Risk?

Many people do not have a positive opinion or experience with the healthcare system. Many testing techniques, medical procedures, and unique treatments are frightening and even painful. Sometimes just speaking with a healthcare provider will cause anxiety.

All healthcare workers try to make these experiences more pleasant, but they are not always successful. Sometimes, people are left with long-lasting psychological and physiological symptoms that stem from stressful medical experiences.

Medical trauma involves the emotional and physical reactions to negative experiences with medical illness, severe injury, procedures, and treatments. Many different medical diagnoses and treatments can be stressful for people and lead to symptoms of PTSD.

Previously, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV) described being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness as a type of traumatic event that might lead to PTSD.

However, in the updated 2013 edition (the DSM-5), the definition of what would be considered medically "traumatic" involves events that are sudden and catastrophic.

Some of the most stressful healthcare experiences occur when facing a life-threatening diagnosis. Sometimes, specific procedures are required to save a life, which can be painful and frightening.

Examples of “traumatic” healthcare experiences include:

  • A life-threatening injury or medical problem (such as anaphylaxis)
  • The feeling of loss of control when receiving a scary diagnosis
  • Needing emergency surgery (such as internal bleeding requiring emergency surgery)
  • Being surrounded by constant noise and having frequent medical checks that disrupt sleep when staying in a hospital
  • Experiencing delirium while in the hospital (when a person sees or thinks frightening things)

Symptoms of Medical Trauma

It's typical and expected for someone to have difficult reactions following significant medical interventions, but these feelings should naturally decrease over time.

Examples of some of these symptoms include:

  • Persistent fear
  • Avoidance of particular places and events
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Recurring memories or flashbacks
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbances

Symptoms in Children

Children may react differently than adults after experiencing trauma. Symptoms in children under age 6 can include:

  • Wetting the bed
  • Forgetting how to talk
  • Acting out the scary event
  • Being unusually clingy

Although almost anyone can develop PTSD from medical trauma, not everyone will. After a medical intervention, about 80% of ill or injured children and their families experience some traumatic stress. Approximately 15% to 25% of children experience persistent traumatic stress.

In the adult population, stress reactions to medical events vary depending on the type of medical scenario. About 33% of injured people experience symptoms of PTSD or depression after their injury. About 20% to 30% of people who required intensive care experience PTSD symptoms.

Treatment of Medical Trauma

It is common to avoid talking or thinking about traumatic experiences. Still, one of the best ways to relieve the feelings is to share the experiences with someone you trust.

Treating symptoms related to medical trauma should incorporate many of the same principles involved in treating PTSD. Elements of an overall treatment plan should include:

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Integration of health and psychological treatments

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that educates people about symptoms, identifies maladaptive (negative) thoughts, teaches skills to identify symptomatic triggers, and helps people manage symptoms. Talking with a mental health provider can occur individually or in a group setting.

In addition, people with certain symptoms of PTSD might be prescribed medication, such as antidepressants.

A person experiencing the effects of medical trauma can also help themselves by:

  • Exploring treatment options with a healthcare provider
  • Exercising to reduce stress
  • Setting realistic goals
  • Breaking up large tasks into smaller ones
  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Confiding in trusted friends or relatives
  • Seeking out comforting situations, places, and people

Prognosis for Those With Medical Trauma

Not everyone who lives through a dangerous or life-threatening medical experience develops symptoms of PTSD. In fact, most people will not develop PTSD symptoms from a specific event.

Factors that can help reduce the risk of developing PTSD include:

  • Seeking out support from friends and family
  • Finding a support group
  • Learning to feel good about one’s actions in the face of danger
  • Having a positive coping strategy
  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fearful

Summary

Medical trauma is a set of negative mental and bodily responses to medical illness, procedures, and treatments. People can develop PTSD symptoms after overwhelming reactions to pain, injury, serious illness, invasive procedures, and frightening treatments.

These symptoms might involve avoidance of specific situations, negative alterations in mood, and marked changes in reactivity.

Treating PTSD symptoms due to medical trauma mainly involves psychotherapy. Medication and expectation management strategies may also be included in an overall treatment plan. Building resilience through utilizing support groups and a cultivating a positive attitude can help limit a person's risk of developing PTSD symptoms after traumatic medical events.

A Word From Verywell

Many aspects of medical care can be scary, particularly when facing a life-threatening procedure or diagnosis. While it does not always occur, people can develop PTSD symptoms after significant medical events. To limit the risk of this, take advantage of support services, reach out to friends and family, and cultivate a positive attitude to build resilience. Remember that you are not alone and can discuss these issues with a trusted mental health provider.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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