Posttraumatic stress disorder

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Posttraumatic stress disorder
Classification and external resources
A mask, painted by a U.S. Marine who attended art therapy to relieve posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms
Patient UKPosttraumatic stress disorder
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"PTSD" redirects here. For the album by Pharoahe Monch, see PTSD (album).
Posttraumatic stress disorder
Classification and external resources
A mask, painted by a U.S. Marine who attended art therapy to relieve posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms
Patient UKPosttraumatic stress disorder

Posttraumatic stress disorder[note 1] (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as sexual assault, warfare, serious injury, or threats of imminent death.[1] The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.[1]

Most people having experienced a traumatizing event will not develop PTSD.[2] People who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD, as opposed to people who experience non-assault based trauma such as witnessing trauma, accidents, and fire events.[3] Children are less likely to experience PTSD after trauma than adults, especially if they are under ten years of age.[2] War veterans are commonly at risk for PTSD.


Posttraumatic stress disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder in the DSM IV; the characteristic symptoms are not present before exposure to the violently traumatic event. In the typical case, the individual with PTSD persistently avoids all thoughts and emotions, and discussion of the stressor event and may experience amnesia for it. However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares.[4] The characteristic symptoms are considered acute if lasting less than three months, and chronic if persisting three months or more, and with delayed onset if the symptoms first occur after six months or some years later. PTSD is distinct from the briefer acute stress disorder, and can cause clinical impairment in significant areas of functioning.[5][6][7]

Risk factors

No quieren (They do not want to) by Francisco Goya (1746–1828) depicts an elderly woman wielding a knife in defense of a young girl being assaulted by a soldier.[8]

PTSD is believed to be caused by the experience of a wide range of traumatic events and, in particular if the trauma is extreme, can occur in persons with no predisposing conditions.[9][10]

Persons considered at risk include, for example, combat military personnel, victims of natural disasters, concentration camp survivors, and victims of violent crime. Individuals frequently experience "survivor's guilt" for remaining alive while others died. Causes of the symptoms of PTSD are the experiencing or witnessing of a stressor event involving death, serious injury or such threat to the self or others in a situation in which the individual felt intense fear, horror, or powerlessness.[11] Persons employed in occupations that expose them to violence (such as soldiers) or disasters (such as emergency service workers) are also at risk.[11]

Children or adults may develop PTSD symptoms by experiencing bullying.[12]


There is evidence that susceptibility to PTSD is hereditary. Approximately 30% of the variance in PTSD is caused from genetics alone. For twin pairs exposed to combat in Vietnam, having a monozygotic (identical) twin with PTSD was associated with an increased risk of the co-twin's having PTSD compared to twins that were dizygotic (non-identical twins).[13] There is also evidence that those with a genetically smaller hippocampus are more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. Research has also found that PTSD shares many genetic influences common to other psychiatric disorders. Panic and generalized anxiety disorders and PTSD share 60% of the same genetic variance. Alcohol, nicotine, and drug dependence share greater than 40% genetic similarities.[14]


Most people will experience at least one traumatizing event in their lifetime.[15] Men are more likely to experience a traumatic event, but women are more likely to experience the kind of high impact traumatic event that can lead to PTSD, such as interpersonal violence and sexual assault.[2] Rates of PTSD are higher in combat veterans than other men, with a rate estimated at up to 20% for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.[15]

Posttraumatic stress reactions have not been studied as well in children and adolescents as adults.[2] The rate of PTSD may be lower in children than adults, but in the absence of therapy, symptoms may continue for decades.[2] One estimate suggests that the proportion of children and adolescents having PTSD in a non-wartorn population in a developed country may be 1% compared to 1.5% to 3% of adults, and much lower below the age of 10 years.[2]

Predictor models have consistently found that childhood trauma, chronic adversity, and familial stressors increase risk for PTSD as well as risk for biological markers of risk for PTSD after a traumatic event in adulthood.[16][17][18][19] Peritraumatic dissociation in children is a predictive indicator of the development of PTSD later in life.[14] This effect of childhood trauma, which is not well-understood, may be a marker for both traumatic experiences and attachment problems.[20][21] Proximity to, duration of, and severity of the trauma also make an impact, and interpersonal traumas cause more problems than impersonal ones.[22]

Quasi-experimental studies have demonstrated a relationship between intrusive thoughts and intentional control responses such that suppression increases the frequency of unwanted intrusive thoughts. These results suggest that suppression of intrusive thoughts may be important in the development and maintenance of PTSD.[23]

Domestic violence

An individual that has been exposed to domestic violence is predisposed to the development of PTSD. However, being exposed to a traumatic experience does not automatically indicate that an individual will develop PTSD.[5] There is a strong association between the development of PTSD in mothers that experienced domestic violence during the perinatal period of their pregnacy.[24]

Military experience

A U.S. Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol team leader in Vietnam, 1968.

The physical trauma soldiers may face when serving in combat increases the risk of developing PTSD. [25] Protective effects include social support and social support also helps with recovery if it develops.[26][27]

The racial similarity between Hispanic and Vietnamese soldiers, and the discrimination Hispanic soldiers faced from their own military, made it difficult for Hispanic soldiers to dehumanize their enemy. Hispanic veterans who reported experiencing racial discrimination during their service displayed more symptoms of PTSD than Hispanic veterans who did not.[28]

Early intervention appears to be a critical preventive measure.[29]

Studies have shown that those prepared for the potential of a traumatic experience are more prepared to deal with the stress of a traumatic experience and therefore less likely to develop PTSD.[5]

PTSD is under-diagnosed in female veterans. [30] Sexual assault in the military is a leading cause for female soldiers developing PTSD; a female soldier who is sexually assaulted while serving in the military is nine times more likely to develop PTSD than a female soldier who is not assaulted. A soldier's assailant may be her colleague or superior officer, making it difficult for her to both report the crime and to avoid interacting with her assailant again. [31] Until the Tailhook scandal drew attention to the problem, the role that sexual assault in the military plays in female veterans developing PTSD went largely unstudied. [32]

Foster care

The rate of PTSD in adults who were in foster care has been found to be higher.[33] One study found that 60% of children in foster care having experienced sexual abuse had PTSD, and 42% of those having been physically abused met the PTSD criteria. PTSD was also found in 18% of the children not abused. These children may have developed PTSD due to witnessing violence in the home, or as a result of real or perceived parental abandonment.[34]

Drug misuse

Alcohol abuse and drug abuse commonly co-occur with PTSD.[35] Recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorders may be hindered, or the condition worsened, by medication or substance overuse, abuse, or dependence; resolving these problems can bring about a marked improvement in an individual's mental health status and anxiety levels.[36][37]

Yohimbine (not considered specifically appropriate for PTSD) increases arousal by increasing release of endogenous norepinephrine and can worsen PTSD symptoms.[35][clarification needed]



PTSD symptoms may result when a traumatic event causes an over-reactive adrenaline response, which creates deep neurological patterns in the brain. These patterns can persist long after the event that triggered the fear, making an individual hyper-responsive to future fearful situations.[5][38] During traumatic experiences the high levels of stress hormones secreted suppress hypothalamic activity that may be a major factor toward the development of PTSD.[39]

PTSD causes biochemical changes in the brain and body that differ from other psychiatric disorders such as major depression. Individuals diagnosed with PTSD respond more strongly to a dexamethasone suppression test than individuals diagnosed with clinical depression.[40][41]

In addition, most people with PTSD also show a low secretion of cortisol and high secretion of catecholamines in urine,[42] with a norepinephrine/cortisol ratio consequently higher than comparable non-diagnosed individuals.[43] This is in contrast to the normative fight-or-flight response, in which both catecholamine and cortisol levels are elevated after exposure to a stressor.[44]

Brain catecholamine levels are high,[45] and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) concentrations are high.[46][47] Together, these findings suggest abnormality in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis is responsible for coordinating the hormonal response to stress.[14] Given the strong cortisol suppression to dexamethasone in PTSD, HPA axis abnormalities are likely predicated on strong negative feedback inhibition of cortisol, itself likely due to an increased sensitivity of glucocorticoid receptors.[48]

Translating this reaction to human conditions gives a pathophysiological explanation for PTSD by a maladaptive learning pathway to fear response through a hypersensitive, hyperreactive, and hyperresponsive HPA axis.[49]

Low cortisol levels may predispose individuals to PTSD: Following war trauma, Swedish soldiers serving in Bosnia and Herzegovina with low pre-service salivary cortisol levels had a higher risk of reacting with PTSD symptoms, following war trauma, than soldiers with normal pre-service levels.[50] Because cortisol is normally important in restoring homeostasis after the stress response, it is thought that trauma survivors with low cortisol experience a poorly contained—that is, longer and more distressing—response, setting the stage for PTSD.

Other studies indicate that people that suffer from PTSD have chronically low levels of serotonin, which contributes to the commonly associated behavioral symptoms such as anxiety, ruminations, irritability, aggression, suicidality, and impulsivity.[51] Serotonin also contributes to the stabilization of glucocorticoid production.

Dopamine levels in patients with PTSD can help contribute to the symptoms associated. Low levels of dopamine can contribute to anhedonia, apathy, impaired attention, and motor deficits. Increased levels of dopamine can cause psychosis, agitation, and restlessness.[51]

Hyperresponsiveness in the norepinephrine system can be caused by continued exposure to high stress. Overactivation of norepinephrine receptors in the prefrontal cortex can be connected to the flashbacks and nightmares frequently experienced by those with PTSD. A decrease in other norepinephrine functions (awareness of the current environment) prevents the memory mechanisms in the brain from processing that the experience, and emotions the person is experiencing during a flashback are not associated with the current environment.[51]

However, there is considerable controversy within the medical community regarding the neurobiology of PTSD. A review of existing studies on this subject showed no clear relationship between cortisol levels and PTSD. However, the majority of reports indicate people with PTSD have elevated levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone, lower basal cortisol levels, and enhanced negative feedback suppression of the HPA axis by dexamethasone.[14][52]


Regions of the brain associated with stress and posttraumatic stress disorder[53]

Three areas of the brain in which function may be altered in PTSD have been identified: the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. Much of this research has utilised PTSD victims from the Vietnam War. For example, a prospective study using the Vietnam Head Injury Study showed that damage to the prefrontal cortex may actually be protective against later development of PTSD.[54] In a study by Gurvits et al., combat veterans of the Vietnam War with PTSD showed a 20% reduction in the volume of their hippocampus compared with veterans having suffered no such symptoms.[55] This finding could not be replicated in chronic PTSD patients traumatized at an air show plane crash in 1988 (Ramstein, Germany).[56]

In human studies, the amygdala has been shown to be strongly involved in the formation of emotional memories, especially fear-related memories. Neuroimaging studies in humans have revealed both morphological and functional aspects of PTSD.[57] However, during high stress times the hippocampus, which is associated with the ability to place memories in the correct context of space and time, and with the ability to recall the memory, is suppressed. This suppression is hypothesized to be the cause of the flashbacks that often plague PTSD patients. When someone with PTSD undergoes stimuli similar to the traumatic event, the body perceives the event as occurring again because the memory was never properly recorded in the patients memory.[14]

The amygdalocentric model of PTSD proposes that it is associated with hyperarousal of the amygdala and insufficient top-down control by the medial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in particular during extinction.[58] This is consistent with an interpretation of PTSD as a syndrome of deficient extinction ability.[58][59] A study at the European Neuroscience Institute-Goettingen (Germany) found that fear extinction-induced IGF2/IGFBP7 signalling promotes the survival of 17–19-day-old newborn hippocampal neurons. This suggests that therapeutic strategies that enhance IGF2 signalling and adult neurogenesis might be suitable to treat diseases linked to excessive fear memory such as PTSD.[60] Further animal and clinical research into the amygdala and fear conditioning may suggest additional treatments for the condition.

The maintenance of the fear involved with PTSD has been shown to include the HPA axis, the locus coeruleus-noradrenergic systems, and the connections between the limbic system and frontal cortex. The HPA axis that coordinates the hormonal response to stress,[61] which activates the LC-noradrenergic system, is implicated in the over-consolidation of memories that occurs in the aftermath of trauma.[62] This over-consolidation increases the likelihood of one's developing PTSD. The amygdala is responsible for threat detection and the conditioned and unconditioned fear responses that are carried out as a response to a threat.[14]

The LC-noradrenergic system has been hypothesized to mediate the over-consolidation of fear memory in PTSD. High levels of cortisol reduce noradrenergic activity, and because patients with PTSD tend to have reduced levels of cortisol, it is proposed that individuals with PTSD fail to regulate the increased noradrenergic response to traumatic stress.[63] It is thought that the intrusive memories and conditioned fear responses to associated triggers is a result of this response. Neuropeptide Y has been reported to reduce the release of norepinephrine and has been demonstrated to have anxiolytic properties in animal models. Studies have shown people with PTSD demonstrate reduced levels of NPY, possibly indicating their increased anxiety levels.[14]

The basolateral nucleus (BLA) of the amygdala is responsible for the comparison and development of associations between unconditioned and conditioned responses to stimuli, which results in the fear conditioning present in PTSD. The BLA activates the central nucleus (CeA) of the amygdala, which elaborates the fear response, (including behavioral response to threat and elevated startle response). Descending inhibitory inputs from the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) regulate the transmission from the BLA to the CeA, which is hypothesized to play a role in the extinction of conditioned fear responses.[14]


Diagnostic and statistical manual

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (Text Revision) (DSM-IV-TR), may be summarized as:[4][64]

A: Exposure to a traumatic event. This must have involved both (a) loss of "physical integrity", or risk of serious injury or death, to self or others, and (b) a response to the event that involved intense fear, horror, or helplessness (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior). (The DSM-IV-TR criterion differs substantially from the previous DSM-III-R stressor criterion, which specified the traumatic event should be of a type that would cause "significant symptoms of distress in almost anyone," and that the event was "outside the range of usual human experience."[65])

B: Persistent re-experiencing. One or more of these must be present in the victim: flashback memories, recurring distressing dreams, subjective re-experiencing of the traumatic event(s), or intense negative psychological or physiological response to any objective or subjective reminder of the traumatic event(s).

C: Persistent avoidance and emotional numbing. This involves a sufficient level of:

D: Persistent symptoms of increased arousal not present before. These are all physiological response issues, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or problems with anger, concentration, or hypervigilance. Additional symptoms include irritability, angry outbursts, increased startle response, and concentration or sleep problems.[51]

E: Duration of symptoms for more than 1 month. If all other criteria are present, but 30 days have not elapsed, the individual is diagnosed with acute stress disorder.[51]

F: Significant impairment. The symptoms reported must lead to "clinically significant distress or impairment" of major domains of life activity, such as social relations, occupational activities, or other "important areas of functioning".[66]


Since the introduction of DSM-IV, the number of possible events that might be used to diagnose PTSD has increased; one study suggests that the increase is around 50%.[67] Various scales to measure the severity and frequency of PTSD symptoms exist.[68][69] Standardized screening tools such as Trauma Screening Questionnaire[70] and PTSD Symptom Scale[71] can be used to detect possible symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and suggest the need for a formal diagnostic assessment.


In DSM-5, published in May, 2013, PTSD is classified as a trauma- and stress-related disorder.[1]

Specify whether:
With dissociative symptoms: (not due to effects of a substance or another medical condition)
  1. In addition, meets the criteria of Depersonalization
  2. In addition, meets the criteria of Derealization
Specify if:
With delayed expression Full criteria not met until more than 6 months after the event

Research-based groups

Emerging factor analytic research[72] suggests that PTSD symptoms group empirically into four clusters, not the three currently described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.[dated info] One model supported by this research divides the traditional avoidance symptoms into a cluster of numbing symptoms (such as loss of interest and feeling emotionally numb) and a cluster of behavioral avoidance symptoms (such as avoiding reminders of the trauma).[73] An alternative model adds a fourth cluster of dysphoric symptoms. These include symptoms of emotional numbing, as well as anger, sleep disturbance, and difficulty concentrating (traditionally grouped under the hyperarousal cluster).[74][75] A literature review[76] and meta-analysis[77] did not find strong support across the literature for one of these models over the other.

International classification of diseases

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10 (ICD-10), may be summarized as:[78]

  1. Inability to recall, either partially or completely, some important aspects of the period of exposure to the stressor
  2. Persistent symptoms of increased psychological sensitivity and arousal (not present before exposure to the stressor) shown by any two of the following:

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10 diagnostic guidelines state:[78] In general, this disorder should not be diagnosed unless there is evidence that it arose within 6 months of a traumatic event of exceptional severity. A "probable" diagnosis might still be possible if the delay between the event and the onset was longer than 6 months, provided that the clinical manifestations are typical and no alternative identification of the disorder (e.g., as an anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder or depressive episode) is plausible. In addition to evidence of trauma, there must be a repetitive, intrusive recollection or re-enactment of the event in memories, daytime imagery, or dreams. Conspicuous emotional detachment, numbing of feeling, and avoidance of stimuli that might arouse recollection of the trauma are often present but are not essential for the diagnosis. The autonomic disturbances, mood disorder, and behavioural abnormalities all contribute to the diagnosis but are not of prime importance. The late chronic sequelae of devastating stress, i.e. those manifest decades after the stressful experience, should be classified under F62.0.

Differential diagnosis

A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an extreme stressor such as one that is life-threatening. Any stressor can result in a diagnosis of adjustment disorder and it is an appropriate diagnosis for a stressor and a symptom pattern that does not meet the criteria for PTSD, for example a stressor like a partner being fired, or a spouse leaving. If any of the symptom pattern is present before the stressor, another diagnosis is required, such as brief psychotic disorder or major depressive disorder. Other differential diagnoses are schizophrenia or other disorders with psychotic features such as Psychotic disorders due to a general medical condition. Drug-induced psychotic disorders can be considered if substance abuse is involved.[4]

The symptom pattern for acute stress disorder must occur and be resolved within four weeks of the trauma. If it lasts longer, and the symptom pattern fits that characteristic of PTSD, the diagnosis may be changed.[4]

Obsessive compulsive disorder may be diagnosed for intrusive thoughts that are recurring but not related to a specific traumatic event.[4]

Malingering should be considered if a financial and/or legal advantage is a possibility.


Modest benefits have been seen from early access to cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as from some medications such as propranolol.[79] Critical incident stress management has been suggested as a means of preventing PTSD, but subsequent studies suggest the likelihood of its producing iatrogenic outcomes.[80][81] A review "...did not find any evidence to support the use of an intervention offered to everyone", and that "...multiple session interventions may result in worse outcome than no intervention for some individuals.[82] The World Health Organization recommends against the use of benzodiazepines and antidepressants in those having experienced trauma.[83]

Early detection

The ability to prescreen individuals would be of great help in getting treatment to those at risk of PTSD prior to development of the syndrome. Several biological indicators have been identified that are related to later PTSD development. First, Delhanty[84] found that higher response times and a smaller hippocampal volume were identified as linked to later PTSD development. However, both of these indicators are relatively difficult to test for and need specialized tests or equipment, or both, to identify. A blood biomarker is much easier to test for. Van Zuiden et al.[85] found a biomarker when testing U.S. Army soldiers prior to deployment. They found that soldiers with more glucocorticoid receptors (GR) were more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD six months after deployment. However, higher GR levels have not been identified as a cause of PTSD, and may instead be an intermediator, or even an indicator that the individual has previously experienced traumatic events. There is a great deal of overlap between high GR levels and those later diagnosed with and without PTSD. Thus, the identification of high GR is simply a vulnerability indicator at this time.

Delhanty[84] found that biological precursors existed directly following traumatic exposure in those that later developed chronic PTSD and were significantly different from those who did not. Directly following the traumatic event, later sufferers often have significantly lower levels of hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal activity and a corresponding decrease in Cortisol. Other methods of early detection include the identification of specific risk factors associated with later PTSD symptoms. Resnick, Acierno, Holmes, Kilpatrick, and Jager,[86] for example, were able to identify that the forensic exam given to victims after a rape was associated with PTSD. Finally, global treatments attempt to avoid the problems of early detection by simply treating everyone involved. However, many studies[84] have found this to be often ineffective and for global treatments to at times increase prevalence rates of PTSD. Stepped collaborative care is where individuals who are at risk are monitored for symptoms.[79] As symptoms of PTSD appear the level of care is increased to treat those symptoms.

Psychological debriefing

Trauma-exposed individuals often receive a purported preventive treatment called psychological debriefing.[79] Psychological debriefing is the most often used preventive measure, partly because of the relative ease with which this treatment can be given to individuals directly following an event. It consists of interviews that are meant to allow individuals to directly confront the event and share their feelings with the counselor and to help structure their memories of the event. However, research has revealed that psychological debriefing does not help trauma survivors, and it might even hurt them.[79] Although from the outset, early psychological debriefing research yielded mixed results, some initial research suggested that psychological debriefings helped ameliorate peritraumatic symptoms and prevent post-traumatic symptom development.[61] But as research progressed, several meta-analyses made it clear that psychological debriefing is unhelpful and potentially harmful.[87][88] The first Cochrane meta-analysis concerned single-session debriefing. More recently a Cochrane review on multiple session interventions was conducted and also found negative results.[89] The American Psychological Association judges the status of psychological debriefing as No Research Support/Treatment is Potentially Harmful.[90]

Risk-targeted interventions

Risk-targeted interventions are those that attempt to mitigate specific formative information or events. It can target modeling normal behaviors, instruction on a task, or giving information on the event. For example,[86] rape victims were given an instruction video on the procedures for a forensic exam. Also included in the video was advice on how to identify and stop avoidance behavior and control anxiety. Finally, the individuals modeling the forensic exam were shown to be calm and relaxed. PTSD diagnosis for those having seen the video were 33% less than for those having gone through the standard forensic procedure.


Some medications have shown benefit in preventing PTSD or reducing its incidence, when given in close proximity to a traumatic event. These medications include:

Alpha-adrenergic agonists: Anecdotal report of success in using clonidine ("Catapres") to reduce traumatic stress symptoms[91] suggests that it may have benefit in preventing PTSD.

Beta blockers: Propranolol ("Inderal"), similar to clonidine, may be useful if there are significant symptoms of "over-arousal". These may inhibit the formation of traumatic memories by blocking adrenaline's effects on the amygdala.[92]

Glucocorticoids: There is some evidence suggesting that administering glucocorticoids immediately after a traumatic experience may help prevent PTSD. Several studies have shown that individuals who receive high doses of hydrocortisone for treatment of septic shock, or following surgery, have a lower incidence and fewer symptoms of PTSD.[93][94][95]

Psychobiological treatments have also found success, especially with cortisol.[79] Psychobiological treatments target biological changes that occur after a traumatic event. They also attempt to chemically alter learning or memory formation. Cortisol treatments after a traumatic event have found success in mitigating later diagnosis of PTSD. As discussed earlier, cortisol is often lower in individuals at risk of PTSD after a traumatic event than their counterparts. By increasing cortisol levels to normal levels this has been shown to reduce arousal post event as well prevent GR upregulation.



Many forms of psychotherapy have been advocated for trauma-related problems such as PTSD. Basic counseling practices common to many treatment responses for PTSD include education about the condition and provision of safety and support.[5][71]

The psychotherapy programs with the strongest demonstrated efficacy include cognitive behavioral programs, variants of exposure therapy, stress inoculation training (SIT), variants of cognitive therapy (CT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR),[57] and many combinations of these procedures.[96][97] A 2010 review disagrees that these treatments have proven efficacy and points out methodological flaws in the studies and previous meta-analyses.[98]

EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT) were recommended as first-line treatments for trauma victims in a 2007 review; however, "the evidence base [for EMDR] was not as strong as that for TFCBT ... Furthermore, there was limited evidence that TFCBT and EMDR were superior to supportive/non-directive treatments, hence it is highly unlikely that their effectiveness is due to non-specific factors such as attention."[99] A meta-analytic comparison of EMDR and cognitive behavioral therapy found both protocols indistinguishable in terms of effectiveness in treating PTSD; however, "the contribution of the eye movement component in EMDR to treatment outcome" is unclear.[100]

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seeks to change the way a trauma victim feels and acts by changing the patterns of thinking or behavior, or both, responsible for negative emotions. CBT has been proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD and is currently considered the standard of care for PTSD by the United States Department of Defense.[101] In CBT, individuals learn to identify thoughts that make them feel afraid or upset and replace them with less distressing thoughts. The goal is to understand how certain thoughts about events cause PTSD-related stress.

Recent research on contextually based third-generation behavior therapies suggests that they may produce results comparable to some of the better validated therapies.[102] Many of these therapy methods have a significant element of exposure[101] and have demonstrated success in treating the primary problems of PTSD and co-occurring depressive symptoms.[103]

Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy[104] that involves assisting trauma survivors to re-experience distressing trauma-related memories and reminders in order to facilitate habituation and successful emotional processing of the trauma memory. Most exposure therapy programs include both imaginal confrontation with the traumatic memories and real-life exposure to trauma reminders; this therapy modality is well supported by clinical evidence. The success of exposure-based therapies has raised the question of whether exposure is a necessary ingredient in the treatment of PTSD.[105] Some organizations[which?] have endorsed the need for exposure.[106][107] The US Department of Veterans Affairs has been actively training mental health treatment staff in prolonged exposure therapy[108] and Cognitive Processing Therapy[109] in an effort to better treat US Veterans with PTSD.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy developed and studied by Francine Shapiro.[110] She had noticed that, when she was thinking about disturbing memories herself, her eyes were moving rapidly. When she brought her eye movements under control while thinking, the thoughts were less distressing.[110]

In 2002, Shapiro and Maxfield published a theory of why this might work, called adaptive information processing.[111] This theory proposes that eye movement can be used to facilitate emotional processing of memories, changing the person's memory to attend to more adaptive information.[112] The therapist initiates voluntary rapid eye movements while the person focuses on memories, feelings or thoughts about a particular trauma.[2][113] The therapists uses hand movements to get the person to move their eyes backward and forward, but hand-tapping or tones can also be used.[2] EMDR closely resembles cognitive behavior therapy as it combines exposure (re-visiting the traumatic event), working on cognitive processes and relaxation/self-monitoring.[2] However, exposure by way of being asked to think about the experience rather than talk about it has been highlighted as one of the more important distinguishing elements of EMDR.[114]

There have been multiple small controlled trials of four to eight weeks of EMDR in adults[115] as well as children and adolescents.[113] EMDR reduced PTSD symptoms enough in the short term that one in two adults no longer met the criteria for PTSD, but the number of people involved in these trials was small.[115] There was not enough evidence to know whether or not EMDR could eliminate PTSD.[115] There was some evidence that EMDR might prevent depression.[115] There were no studies comparing EMDR to other psychological treatments or to medication.[115] Adverse effects were largely unstudied.[115] The benefits were greater for women with a history of sexual assault compared with people who had experienced other types of traumatizing events (such as accidents, physical assaults and war). There is a small amount of evidence that EMDR may improve re-experiencing symptoms in children and adolescents, but EMDR has not been shown to improve other PTSD symptoms, anxiety, or depression.[113]

The eye movement component of the therapy may not be critical for benefit.[2][112] As there has been no major, high quality randomized trial of EMDR with eye movements versus EMDR without eye movements, the controversy over effectiveness is likely to continue.[114]

Interpersonal psychotherapy

Other approaches, in particular involving social supports,[26][27] may also be important. An open trial of interpersonal psychotherapy[116] reported high rates of remission from PTSD symptoms without using exposure.[117] A current, NIMH-funded trial in New York City is now (and into 2013) comparing interpersonal psychotherapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and relaxation therapy.[118][broken citation][119][120]


A variety of medications has shown adjunctive benefit in reducing PTSD symptoms,[121] but "there is no clear drug treatment for PTSD".[122] In general, positive symptoms (re-experiencing, hypervigilance, increased arousal) respond better to medication than negative symptoms (avoidance, withdrawal), and it is recommended that any drug trial last for at least 6–8 weeks.[122] With many medications, residual symptoms following treatment is the rule rather than the exception, which has led to increased research in the aggressive treatment of PTSD symptoms.[123]

Some studies have shown that treatment with hydrocortisone shortly after a traumatic event, in comparison to a placebo, decreases the likelihood that the patient will suffer from PTSD. Other studies have indicated that propranolol administered within 6 hours of a traumatic event decreases the physiological reactivity to a reminder of the traumatic event. However propranolol had no effect on the rate of PTSD. Despite these studies, there is not significant evidence that medication can prevent PTSD, therefore none is routinely administered.[124]

Symptom management

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). SSRIs are considered to be a first-line drug treatment.[125][126] SSRIs for which there are data to support use include: citalopram, escitalopram,[127] fluoxetine,[128] fluvoxamine,[129] paroxetine,[130] and sertraline.[128][131]

Among the anti-depressants described in this section, bupropion and venlafaxine have the lowest patient drop-out rates. Sertraline, fluoxetine, and nefazodone have a modestly higher drop-out rate (~15%), and the heterocyclics and paroxetine have the highest rates (~20%+).[132] Where drop-out is caused or feared because of medication side-effects, it should be remembered that most patients do not experience such side-effects.[133]

Tricyclic antidepressants: Amitriptyline has shown benefit for positive distress symptoms and for avoidance, and imipramine has shown benefit for intrusive symptoms.[128]

Alpha-adrenergic antagonists: Prazosin, in a small study of combat veterans, has shown substantial benefit in relieving or reducing nightmares.[35] Clonidine can be helpful with startle, hyperarousal, and general autonomic hyperexcitability.[134]

Anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, anti-aggression agents: Carbamazepine has likely benefit in reducing arousal symptoms involving noxious affect,[128] as well as mood or aggression.[135] Topiramate[35] has been effective in achieving major reductions in flashbacks and nightmares, and no reduction of effect was seen over time.[35] Zolpidem has also proven useful in treating sleep disturbances.[134]

Lamotrigine may be useful in reducing reexperiencing symptoms, as well as avoidance and emotional numbing.[35][136][137][138] Valproic acid and has shown reduction of symptoms of irritability, aggression, and impulsiveness, and in reducing flashbacks.[134] Similarly, lithium carbonate has worked to control mood and aggressions (but not anxiety) symptoms.[135] Buspirone has an effect similar to that of lithium, with the additional benefit of working to reduce hyperarousal symptoms.[134]

Antipsychotics such as risperidone can be used to help with dissociation, mood issues, and aggression.[139]

Serotonin antagonists. Cyproheptadine can be used to help with sleep disorders and nightmares.[140]

Atypical antidepressants:[141] Nefazodone can be effective with sleep disturbance symptoms and with secondary depression, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction symptoms.[128] Trazodone can also reduce or eliminate problems with anger, anxiety, and disturbed sleep.[128]

Beta blockers: Propranolol has demonstrated possibilities in reducing hyperarousal symptoms, including sleep disturbances.[92][134]

Benzodiazepines: These drugs are not recommended by clinical guidelines for the treatment of PTSD due to a lack of evidence of benefit.[142] Nevertheless some doctors use benzodiazepines with caution for short-term anxiety relief,[139][143] hyperarousal, and sleep disturbance.[134] However, some authors believe that the use of benzodiazepines is contraindicated for acute stress, as this group of drugs promotes dissociation and ulterior revivals.[144] While benzodiazepines can alleviate acute anxiety, there is no consistent evidence that they can stop the development of PTSD, or are at all effective in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Additionally, benzodiazepines may reduce the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic interventions, and there is some evidence that benzodiazepines may actually contribute to the development and chronification of PTSD. Other drawbacks include the risk of developing a benzodiazepine dependence and withdrawal syndrome; additionally, individuals with PTSD are at an increased risk of abusing benzodiazepines.[125][145]

Glucocorticoids: In addition, post-stress high-dose corticosterone administration was recently found to reduce "PTSD-like" behaviors in a rat model of PTSD. In this study, corticosterone impaired memory performance, suggesting that it may reduce risk for PTSD by interfering with consolidation of traumatic memories.[146] The neurodegenerative effects of the glucocorticoids, however, may prove this treatment counterproductive.[147]

Monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): Phenelzine has for some time[when?] been observed to be effective with hyperarousal and depression and is especially effective with nightmares.[128]

Medications by symptom group affected

Medications can affect one or more of the symptoms, in one or more of the three major symptom classes[4] involved in diagnosing PTSD, which can be summarized in the following table:[139][143][148]

Symptom classSymptomMedication
 intrusive recallamitriptyline; fluoxetine; imipramine; lamotrigine; sertraline
intrusive reexperiencingamitriptyline; fluoxetine; imipramine; nefazodone; sertraline (women only); topiramate;
sleep disturbance, nightmaresbenzodiazepines; carbamazepine; clonidine; nefazodone; phenelzine; prazosin; topiramate; trazodone; zolpidem
dissociative recallrisperidone
intense psychological distress (anger, anxiety) when exposed to reminders of traumatic event(s)benzodiazepines; buspirone; carbamazepine; lithium (not for anxiety); nefazodone; trazodone
 avoidanceamitriptyline; fluoxetine; lamotrigine; nefazodone; sertraline
feelings of detachment or estrangement from othersamitriptyline; risperidone
restricted range of affect (numbing)amitriptyline; lamotrigine; sertraline (women only)
 general hyperarousalamitriptyline; nefazodone; phenelzine; sertraline (women only)
sleep disturbance, nightmaresbenzodiazepines; carbamazepine; clonidine; nefazodone; phenelzine; trazodone; zolpidem
irritability, anger (and impulsiveness)carbamazepine; nefazodone; valproic acid
angerbuspirone; fluoxetine; lithium; trazodone
exaggerated startle response; general autonomic hyperexcitabilitybenzodiazepines; buspirone; carbamazepine; clonidine; propranolol; valproic acid

Some medications can also help with symptoms that may occur secondary to PTSD:[148]

Secondary symptomMedication
depressionnefazodone; phenelzine
dream content distortionsnefazodone
relapse of symptomscarbamazepine
self-mutilationclonidine; buprenorphine
sexual function reductionnefazodone
sleep hours reductionnefazodone


Exercise, sport and physical activity

Physical activity can have an impact on people's psychological wellbeing[149] and physical health.[150] The U.S. National Center for PTSD recommends moderate exercise as a way to distract from disturbing emotions, build self-esteem and increase feelings of being in control again. They recommend a discussion with a doctor before starting an exercise program.[151]

Some uncontrolled studies have found benefits for people with PTSD from exercise programs.[149] A small trial studied adding a physical component to biofeedback-based CBT with traumatized refugees. The authors concluded that physical activity may lead to clinical improvement, but bigger trials are needed.[152] More trials are underway.[153][154][155]

Play therapy for children

Play is thought to help children link their inner thoughts with their outer world, connecting real experiences with abstract thought.[156] Repetitive play can also be one of the ways a child relives traumatic events, and that can be a symptom of traumatization in a child or young person.[157]

Play is a familiar way for children and young people to indirectly address what worries them, so it is often used as an element of psychological treatment – for example, using play materials or drawing to help a child focus on their feelings and events.[2][156] Play therapy means using games, drawings and play materials to express, understand and control feelings rather than as a means of communication.[156][158] Although it is commonly used, there have not been enough studies comparing outcomes in groups of children receiving and not receiving play therapy, so the effects of play therapy are not yet understood.[2][156]


Disability-adjusted life year rates for posttraumatic stress disorder per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004.[159]
  no data
  < 43.5
  > 58.5

There is debate over the rates of PTSD found in populations, but, despite changes in diagnosis and the criteria used to define PTSD between 1997 and 2007, epidemiological rates have not changed significantly.[160]

The United Nations' World Health Organization publishes estimates of PTSD impact for each of its member states; the latest data available are for 2004. Considering only the 25 most populated countries ranked by overall age-standardized Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY) rate, the top half of the ranked list is dominated by Asian/Pacific countries, the US, and Egypt.[161] Ranking the countries by the male-only or female-only rates produces much the same result, but with less meaningfulness, as the score range in the single-sex rankings is much-reduced (4 for women, 3 for men, as compared with 14 for the overall score range), suggesting that the differences between female and male rates, within each country, is what drives the distinctions between the countries.[162][163]

Age-standardized Disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates for PTSD, per 100,000 inhabitants, in 25 most populous countries, ranked by overall rate (2004)
RegionCountryPTSD DALY rate,
Asia / PacificThailand598630
Asia / PacificIndonesia588630
Asia / PacificPhilippines588630
Asia / PacificBangladesh578529
Asia / PacificIndia568529
Asia / PacificIran568330
Asia / PacificPakistan568529
Asia / PacificJapan558031
Asia / PacificMyanmar558130
Asia / PacificVietnam558030
Asia / PacificRussian Federation547830
EuropeUnited Kingdom548028
AfricaDem. Republ. of Congo527628
AfricaSouth Africa527628
Asia / PacificChina517628

United States

The National Comorbidity Survey Replication has estimated that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans is 6.8%, with women (9.7%) more than twice as likely as men[51] (3.6%) to have PTSD at some point in their lives.[164] More than 60% of men and more than 60% of women experience at least one traumatic event in their life. The most frequently reported traumatic events by men are rape, combat, and childhood neglect or physical abuse. Women most frequently report instances of rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon and childhood physical abuse.[51] 88% of men and 79% of women with lifetime PTSD have at least one comorbid psychiatric disorder. Major depressive disorder, 48% of men and 49% of women, and lifetime alcohol abuse or dependence, 51.9% of men and 27.9% of women, are the most common comorbid disorders.[165]

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffered symptoms of PTSD.[166] The National Vietnam Veterans' Readjustment Study (NVVRS) found 15.2% of male and 8.5% of female Vietnam Vets to suffer from current PTSD at the time of the study. Life-Time prevalence of PTSD was 30.9% for males and 26.9% for females. In a reanalysis of the NVVRS data, along with analysis of the data from the Matsunaga Vietnam Veterans Project, Schnurr, Lunney, Sengupta, and Waelde found that, contrary to the initial analysis of the NVVRS data, a large majority of Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD symptoms (but not the disorder itself). Four out of five reported recent symptoms when interviewed 20–25 years after Vietnam.[167]

A 2011 study from Georgia State University and San Diego State University found that rates of PTSD diagnosis increased significantly when troops were stationed in combat zones, had tours of longer than a year, experienced combat, or were injured. Military personnel serving in combat zones were 12.1 percentage points more likely to receive a PTSD diagnosis than their active-duty counterparts in non-combat zones. Those serving more than 12 months in a combat zone were 14.3 percentage points more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than those having served less than one year. Experiencing an enemy firefight was associated a 18.3 percentage point increase in the probability of PTSD, while being wounded or injured in combat was associated a 23.9 percentage point increase in the likelihood of a PTSD diagnosis. For the 2.16 million U.S. troops deployed in combat zones between 2001 and 2010, the total estimated two-year costs of treatment for combat-related PTSD are between $1.54 billion and $2.69 billion.[168]

Society and culture

United States—veterans

A review of the provision of compensation to veterans for PTSD by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs began in 2005 after the VA had noted a 30% increase in PTSD claims in recent years.[169] In 2005 the suicide rate among male Veteran VA users was 37.19 per 100,000, compared to 13.59 in females.[170] In response, on November 10, 2005, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs announced that "the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will not review the files of 72,000 veterans currently receiving disability compensation for posttraumatic stress disorder..."[171]

Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced significant physical, emotional, and relational disruptions. In response, the United States Marine Corps has instituted programs to assist them in re-adjusting to civilian life, especially in their relationships with spouses and loved ones, to help them communicate better and understand what the other has gone through.[172] Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) developed the Battlemind program to assist service members avoid or ameliorate PTSD and related problems.

The American Legion is the most popular social and mutual-aid veterans' organization, with nearly 3 million members in over 14,000 Posts. Posts organize community events and service projects, and often have a bar open for limited hours. The American Legion is politically active on behalf of interests of veterans and service members, promoting support for veterans benefits, Veterans Affairs hospital system.[173][broken citation]

The Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative organizes wilderness trips for veterans, and has received positive feedback about stress reduction.[174] One viewpoint suggests that "the key seems to be helping vets experience intense challenges free from the psychological shackles of life-and-death danger." Ice climbing has been a successful activity, "because its perceived challenge is so high,"[175] and Grizzly Tracking in Montana for Veterans, Service Members, and Families is scheduled for summer 2012.[176] More relaxing wilderness trips may also be of value, as settling into a rhythm moves an individual away from a state of hypervigilance into a more relaxed "flow experience". A Colorado therapist has suggested that "repetitive motor movements like cycling or skiing" and "rhythmic outdoor activities" reduce stress through a mechanism similar to EMDR therapy. An Outward Bound instructor comments that "the most healing occurs while [people are] drinking coffee and hanging out by the river" with fellow vets.[175]

Other countries—veterans

In the UK, there are various charities and service organisations dedicated to aiding veterans in readjusting to civilian life. The Royal British Legion and the more recently established Help for Heroes are two of Britain's more high-profile veterans' organisations which have actively advocated for veterans over the years. There has been some controversy that the NHS has not done enough in tackling mental health issues and is instead "dumping" veterans on charities such as Combat Stress.[177][178][179]

Veterans Affairs Canada offers a new program that includes rehabilitation, financial benefits, job placement, health benefits program, disability awards, peer support[180][181][182] and family support.[183]


The 1952 edition of the DSM-I includes a diagnosis of Gross stress reaction which bears striking similarities to the modern definition and understanding of PTSD.[184] Gross stress reaction is defined as a “normal personality [utilizing] established patterns of reaction to deal with overwhelming fear” as a response to “conditions of great stress”. [185] The diagnosis includes language which relates the condition to combat as well as to “civilian catastrophe”. [185]

Early in 1978, the term was used in a working group finding presented to the Committee of Reactive Disorders.[186] The condition was added to the DSM-III, which was being developed in the 1980s, as posttraumatic stress disorder.[186][184] In the DSM-IV, the spelling "posttraumatic stress disorder" is used, while in the ICD-10, the spelling is "post-traumatic stress disorder".[187]

The addition of the term to the DSM-III was greatly influenced by the experiences and conditions of US military veterans of the war in Vietnam.[188] Due to its association with the war in Vietnam, PTSD has become synonymous with many historical war-time diagnoses such as railway spine, stress syndrome, nostalgia, soldier's heart, shell shock, battle fatigue, combat stress reaction, or traumatic war neurosis.[189][190] Some of these terms date back to the 19th century, which is indicative of the universal nature of the condition. In a similar vein Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has proposed that Lady Percy's soliloquy in Henry IV, Part 1 (act 2, scene 3, lines 40–62[191]), written around 1597, represents an unusually accurate description of the symptom constellation of PTSD.[192]

Statue, Three Servicemen, Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The correlations between combat and PTSD are undeniable; according to Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, "One-tenth of mobilized American men were hospitalized for mental disturbances between 1942 and 1945, and, after thirty-five days of uninterrupted combat, 98% of them manifested psychiatric disturbances in varying degrees."[193] In fact, much of the available published research regarding PTSD is based on studies done on veterans of the war in Vietnam. The researchers from the Grady Trauma Project highlight the tendency people have to focus on the combat side of PTSD: “less public awareness has focused on civilian PTSD, which results from trauma exposure that is not combat related... “ and “much of the research on civilian PTSD has focused on the sequelae of a single, disastrous event, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, September 11th attacks, and Hurricane Katrina”.[194] Disparity in the focus of PTSD research affects the already popular perception of the exclusive interconnectedness of combat and PTSD. This is misleading when it comes to understanding the implications and extent of PTSD as a neurological disorder. Dating back to the definition of Gross stress reaction in the DSM-I, civilian experience of catastrophic or high stress events is included as a cause of PTSD in medical literature. The 2014 National Comorbidity Survey reports that “the traumas most commonly associated with PTSD are combat exposure and witnessing among men and rape and sexual molestation among women.”[195] Because of the initial overt focus on PTSD as a combat related disorder when it was first fleshed out in the years following the war in Vietnam, in 1975 Ann Wolbert Burgess and Lynda Lytle Holmstrom defined Rape trauma syndrome, RTS, in order to draw attention to the striking similarities between the experiences of soldiers returning from war and of rape victims.[196] This paved the way for a more comprehensive understanding of causes of PTSD.


To recapitulate some of the neurological and neurobehavioral symptoms experienced by the veteran population of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, researchers at the Roskamp Institute and the James A Haley Veteran’s Hospital (Tampa) have developed an animal model to study the consequences of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) and PTSD.[197] In the laboratory, the researchers exposed mice to a repeated session of unpredictable stressor (i.e. predator odor while restrained), and physical trauma in the form of inescapable foot-shock, and this was also combined with a mTBI. In this study, PTSD animals demonstrated recall of traumatic memories, anxiety, and an impaired social behavior, while animals subject to both mTBI and PTSD had a pattern of disinhibitory-like behavior. mTBI abrogated both contextual fear and impairments in social behavior seen in PTSD animals. In comparison with other animal studies,[197][198] examination of neuroendocrine and neuroimmune responses in plasma revealed a trend toward increase in corticosterone in PTSD and combination groups.

Psychotherapy adjuncts

MDMA was used for psychedelic therapy for a variety of indications before its criminalization in the US in 1985. In response to its criminalization, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was founded as a nonprofit drug-development organization to develop MDMA into a legal prescription drug for use as an adjunct in psychotherapy.[199] The drug is hypothesized to facilitate psychotherapy by reducing fear, thereby allowing patients to reprocess and accept their traumatic memories without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. In this treatment, patients participate in an extended psychotherapy session during the acute activity of the drug, and then spend the night at the treatment facility. In the sessions with the drug, therapists are not directive and support the patients in exploring their inner experiences. Patients participate in standard psychotherapy sessions before the drug-assisted sessions, as well as after the drug-assisted psychotherapy to help them integrate their experiences with the drug.[200] Preliminary results suggest MDMA-assisted psychotherapy might be effective for individuals who have not responded favorably to other treatments. Future research employing larger sample sizes and an appropriate placebo condition, i.e., one in which subjects cannot discern if they are in the experimental or control condition, will increase confidence in the results of initial research.[201][202]

Clinical research is also investigating using D-cycloserine, hydrocortisone, and propranolol as adjuncts to more conventional exposure therapy.[202]

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