A world-first study of 300 Vietnam veterans, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, has shown PTSD – a condition that affects an estimated one million Australians – is not just psychological.
It wrecks havoc on the body too, impacting the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as a sufferers’ sleep.
Based on the findings PTSD should be considered a “full systemic disorder” rather than just a mental health problem, says Miriam Dwyer, CEO of the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation.
Researchers at GMRF, the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, and Greenslopes Private Hospital in Brisbane, analysed the health of nearly 300 Vietnam War veterans between 2014-15.
Of these, 108 were confirmed as having had PTSD, and 106 served as trauma-exposed control participants who did not have PTSD.
The average total of co-occurring physical conditions was higher among those with PTSD (17.7 per cent) than in trauma-exposed controls (14.1 per cent), according to the research.
Independent of all typical risk factors like smoking and obesity, the veterans with PTSD were four times more likely to have had a heart attack and three times more like to suffer from sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome.
They were also two to three times more likely to have gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, their lung function was decreased and they had abnormal liver texture.
“We are a product of our entire body so the psychological impact has a downstream effect on the rest of the body,” Dwyer said.
It’s estimated almost one million Australians, or one in 20, have PTSD and a more holistic treatment approach is vitally needed to ensure the wellbeing of sufferers, says Professor Alexander McFarlane, director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide.
Just knowing PTSD was the cause of his many physical problems, Vietnam veteran Tony Dell says the research findings are personally comforting.
He hopes this new insight will be used to help others with PTSD.
“It’s an obligation for us to try to get them back on their feet and become worthwhile members of our society again. When it’s all said and done they are the sorts of people that we want contributing and being in employment,” Dell said.
McFarlane says the ‘failure’ to treat the ‘biological’ symptoms of PTSD has not served patients well.
“The limited effectiveness of evidence-based psychological interventions in people with PTSD, particularly in veteran populations, highlights the need to develop biological therapies that address the underlying neurophysiological and immune dysregulation associated with PTSD,” McFarlane wrote in an editorial for the MJA.
As a way forward, GMRF has partnered with RSL Queensland to launch a GP online education program to improve the identification and treatment of PTSD.
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