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ICU patients suffer from PTSD: study

War terminology is often used in the medical context: battling viruses, fighting bacteria, the war on cancer, drugs as weapons.

But a study published today further supports the war analogy by finding that post-traumatic stress disorder is common amongst patients who've survived the intensive care unit -- as common as it is in soldiers, according to senior author Dale Needham.

In the three-year study, Johns Hopkins researchers found that one in three patients who required a mechanical ventilator showed clinically-significant PTSD symptoms -- and for some, the symptoms lasted up to two years.

"We usually think of PTSD as something you develop if you go to war, are sexually assaulted or suffer a similar emotional trauma," Needham said in a press release. "Instead, it may be as common, or more common, in ICU patients as soldiers, but it's something that many doctors  -- including psychiatrists -- don't fully appreciate."

The researchers observed 520 patients in Baltimore with acute lung injury between 2004 and 2007, about half of whom survived. They followed up with 186 patients and 35 per cent showed PTSD symptoms; 62 per cent of those patients still had symptoms two years later.

Many PTSD sufferers had flashbacks of false memories stemming from delusional episodes or hallucinations -- one woman recalled her husband and a nurse plotting to kill her, according to O. Joseph Bienvenu, another researcher with the study.

The terrifying experience of being on the brink of death -- compounded by sedatives, narcotics and being attached to a breathing machine -- can create "memories" of horrible things that never happened, the researchers said.

The study found that some patients are at a higher risk of developing PTSD: those who already suffered from depression, had sepsis, were given high doses of opiates or spent longer periods in ICU.

The study highlights the need to emphasize "psychological rehab" as well as physical rehabiliation for patients, the researchers said.

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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