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New Article Documents High Rates of PTSD in Former ICU Patients

August 14, 2013
Bonnie Navin

When most people think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they imagine a soldier returning home to civilian life after witnessing the atrocities of war in a far-away foreign locale. However, a recent article in the New York Times on July 22, 2013 entitled “Nightmares After the I.C.U.” introduces a form of PTSD that has been largely unidentified and untreated: PTSD that occurs as a result of hospital stays in an intensive care unit. The article states that “[a]nnually, about five million patients stay in an intensive care unit in the United States. Studies show that up to 35 percent may have symptoms of PTSD for as long as two years after that experience, particularly if they had a prolong stay due to a critical illness with severe infection or respiratory failure.”
The type of PTSD that occurs in patients is different from other forms of PTSD in that the patients often have vivid memories of events that did not occur. While a soldier may have flashbacks of a friend wounded by gunfire, a patient may recall torture and gruesome events that did not take place but nonetheless appears to be very real to them. The article reveals that researchers have begun to identify sedation as the source of some of the most debilitating flashbacks that former patients experience. Researchers are now finding that a certain class of drugs called benzodiazepines not only cause amnesia, which is often seen as desirable for patients experiencing traumatic events like having a ventilator in place, may lay the foundation for PTSD during recovery.
Treatment for these patients poses unique challenges because their fears and flashbacks relate to medical treatment and it can be difficult to persuade them to seek further medical attention for PTSD.
It is important that patients and their families recognize that not only will people who have been in an I.C.U. have a long journey to recovery physically; they may very well have a long path to psychological healing as well.