The Truth About Medical Trauma

medical trauma

Trauma is often associated with significant events such as car accidents, natural disasters, or childhood neglect or abuse. However, a form of trauma known as medical trauma can stem from an adverse medical experience. This type of trauma can be far-reaching, causing many mental and physical symptoms that can last for many years.

What Is Medical Trauma?

Also known as medical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), medical trauma can come from many areas. Some people may experience medical trauma because of a medical procedure or difficult childbirth. Others may feel dismissed or belittled by their medical providers and feel they do not get the medical care they need.

Other potential causes of medical trauma include:

  • Going through cancer treatment or other serious illness
  • Having health complications as a child
  • Dealing with medically unexplained symptoms
  • Your wishes being disregarded during medical treatment
  • Being in intensive care
  • Receiving a lower standard of care because of discrimination or medical neglect

Childbirth is a prevalent source of medical trauma. This can come from having an emergency C-section, a new-born baby being sent to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or experiencing obstetric violence. Many women also have their wishes ignored during childbirth, which can be incredibly traumatic.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a recent source of trauma. Many saw their loved ones suffer or even pass away, and people who contracted the virus and were put on ventilators have the potential to experience trauma symptoms such as flashbacks.[1]

Many people dealing with medical trauma can often feel like they should not be complaining about their experiences, especially if the treatment they received saved their lives. However, this is not the case – being affected by medical trauma can have severe consequences, and you have every right to voice concerns.

Some groups are more at risk of experiencing medical trauma than others. Those with a history of anxiety or PTSD may be more likely to experience medical trauma, and for women and people of colour, this can also be due to the discrimination they may face when seeking treatment.[2]

It is estimated that between 15-25% of children and adolescents experience persistent traumatic stress after a traumatic medical experience, and approximately one-third of adults with traumatic injuries experience PTSD post-injury.[3]

Symptoms of Medical Trauma

The symptoms of medical trauma are very similar to those of PTSD and can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociation
  • Hypervigilance
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Avoidance of triggers, for example, medical settings or doctors

Many people can also relive the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares, which can cause extreme distress. Trauma can also have physical effects, such as unexplained aches or pains, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. This can be even more concerning for those dealing with medical trauma, as they may not want to consult a doctor about their symptoms.

Trauma can also have long-reaching effects in the future. Although a medical condition may be successfully treated, the psychological consequences of medical trauma can be damaging. Those with medical trauma may have difficulty trusting doctors and medical professionals, making it challenging to seek treatment when they need it.

Managing Medical Trauma

It is possible to recover from medical trauma, and there are several steps that you can take to manage and overcome trauma, including:

  • Let your doctors know – if you have swapped doctors or are seeing someone new, let them know that you are struggling. Ask them to talk through any medications they prescribe and to walk you through any procedures required ahead of time to help reassure you.
  • Acknowledge your trauma – it is common for trauma survivors to downplay their trauma and tell themselves it was not that bad. However, if you are still dealing with the physical and emotional consequences of medical trauma, acknowledging it is the first step to beginning to heal.
  • Bringing a companion to appointments – bringing a friend or family member to any appointments can help. They can note down answers to any questions you ask, reassure you before, during, and after your appointment, and take you to do something relaxing afterwards.
  • Practise mindfulness – mindfulness and mindful practices such as meditation can help to reduce stress and anchor you in the present moment. Mindfulness can include breathing exercises or simply focusing on what you are doing and being completely present. Mindfulness exercises can also help lower stress levels while you’re waiting for a medical appointment or check-up.
  • Seek treatment – trauma-focused therapy can help you process your experiences and give you the tools you need to move past your experiences. Techniques such as somatic experiencing, internal family systems therapy, and yoga can help you process trauma and move past it.

When dealing with trauma, it’s important to remember that it is normal to have a strong reaction to a distressing event. Be patient with yourself and recognise that even with treatment, you will not get better overnight. Healing takes time, and there is no one way to recover from trauma. What works for one person may not work for you – so try different methods to see what helps.

Conclusion

Medical trauma is not often discussed. When medical treatment focuses only on physical symptoms and neglects emotional and mental ones, it can lead to unresolved trauma in the future. Any medical procedure has the potential to lead to medical trauma, and all trauma is equally valid – so seeking support due to an adverse medical experience is important to prevent any symptoms from worsening and becoming unmanageable.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with medical trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] Chamberlain, S., Grant, J., Trender, W., Hellyer, P., & Hampshire, A. (2021). Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in COVID-19 survivors: Online population survey. BJPsych Open, 7(2), E47. doi:10.1192/bjo.2021.3

[2] Valentine S, Marques L, Wang Y. Gender differences in exposure to potentially traumatic events and diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by racial and ethnic group. General Hospital Psychiatry. 2019;61(60-68). doi:10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2019.10.008

[3] Istss.Org, 2022, https://istss.org/ISTSS_Main/media/Documents/Medical-Trauma-Clinician-Fact-Sheet-2.pdf.

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