Previous research has shown that up to 31 percent of veterans returning from combat experience depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now a study lead by Susan M. Frayne, MD, Stanford researcher and associate professor of medicine at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, points to an association between PTSD and additional medical illnesses.
In the study (subscription required), researchers examined data for over 90,000 men and women who use Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services to compare the number of diagnosed medical conditions suffered by returning soldiers with PTSD and those with no mental health condition. The findings, which were published this month in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, showed the burden of medical illness was greater for those with PTSD than for those with no mental health issues, with women worse off than men.
The researchers offer several possibilities for why the small group of PTSD sufferers tended to have from more medical conditions. PTSD itself may somehow increase the risk of medical illness – though that has yet to be proven.
“One way this could happen is that PTSD can cause changes in the neuroendocrine system in the body, which might affect other biological processes,” Frayne explained.
PTSD could also have associations with certain health behaviors that can negatively affect physical health, such as smoking or alcohol use.
Another possibility is that whatever trauma led to PTSD also triggered the other medical conditions. A roadside bomb explosion might expose a veteran to broken bones or brain injury, as well as cause the emotional trauma related to PTSD.