Could I have post traumatic stress disorder with a severe burn injury?

John Preston, PsyD

Severe burns frequently result in significant emotional reactions including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The type of stressful events that can result in PTSD have the following characteristics:

  1. The stressor is severe (such as life threatening events or intense pain),
  2. The person experiencing it feels helpless/powerless, and
  3. during the traumatic event there is the perception of an inability to escape.

Many people who are exposed to these types of very stressful events respond with intense emotional responses, many become depressed and some may develop PTSD.

PTSD is diagnosed by a particular set of symptoms: intense anxiety; flashbacks (re-experiencing the event as if it were happening again)…this is not a memory in the ordinary sense, but is a frightening emotional reliving of the event. During a flashback the person may literally become disconnected from the here and now and temporarily feel that they are back in the midst of the traumatic event; intrusive memories (unwanted automatic memories of the frightening event); nightmares; periods of dissociation in which the person feels numb…often accompanied by a feeling of detachment, difficulty concentrating; many describe this state, feeling as if they are on drugs, feeling spacey and mildly confused; hypersensitivity (easily startled), and avoidance of people or places associated with the traumatic event. Such avoidance can become all-consuming, where the person withdraws from life…the whole world seems dangerous.

There are specialized types of psychotherapy that have a good track record of success in treating PTSD (exposure-based cognitive therapy). Psychiatric drugs can offer a degree of symptom relief, but are not the first-line, recommended treatment which is psychotherapy.

Finally recent findings from treatment of burn victims in Iraq and Afghanistan wars suggest that treatment with high doses of morphine in the immediate aftermath of the trauma may prevent some cases of PTSD.

Any traumatic or life-threatening event can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For instance, if a blast or explosion during combat resulted in a third-degree burn or worse, this could easily lead to PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the trauma or experience, feeling detached, and having constant anxiety or hyperarousal and sleep problems. Many people with PTSD suffer with depression, relationship problems, and drug or alcohol abuse. There is no laboratory test for PTSD, so talking with your doctor about your feelings is extremely important in getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Veterans with PTSD have been helped with a combination of medications, cognitive processing therapy, virtual reality, and memory aids. Other interventions such as occupational therapy may be useful as well as counseling for substance abuse, if needed.  

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.