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Iraq, Afghanistan wars put PTSD in the spotlight

Soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue — the terms all have been used over time to describe the effects of war on those sent to fight it.

Today it’s called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The following information about PTSD is compiled from several websites, including the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD.


PTSD is defined as a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after seeing or experiencing a traumatic event that involved threat of injury or death.

Though soldiers have suffered from it for as long as war has existed, combat isn’t its only cause. PTSD can happen after assault, rape, domestic abuse or natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes.


It varies person to person. Some people with PTSD can’t stop reliving the trauma they’ve experienced; they have frequent flashbacks or nightmares. Others may feel numb, detached; they may avoid situations that remind them of the trauma and they may avoid talking about it. Some have memory loss and trouble concentrating. They may startle easily or become hypervigilant about their surroundings. They may often feel keyed up, agitated or angry.


It’s been estimated that 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD. A recent VA report said that nearly 30 percent of veterans treated at its facilities since 9/11 have been diagnosed with PTSD. However, the VA contends the overall rate — including those who haven’t come to a VA medical center — would be closer to 20 percent. About 10 percent of Desert Storm veterans were diagnosed with PTSD and about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that so far 247,243 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD; experts say there are likely many more veterans who are undiagnosed and untreated.

In addition, 40,000 veterans of those conflicts have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries — concussive injuries that can be caused, for example, by exposure to blasts. Those injuries, according to researchers at the University of Rochester and the University of California at Los Angeles, can place a soldier at risk of developing PTSD; brain injuries, researchers say, can cause mental difficulties such as problems with decision making and memory, impulsive behavior and depression.


No. The VA says that half of the general population goes through some form of trauma at some point in their lives. Of those, about 7 to 8 percent will develop PTSD. About 5.2 million people have PTSD in any given year, only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma. It is not known exactly why traumatic events cause PTSD in some people, but not in others.


PTSD is usually diagnosed by a clinician who asks a patient a series of questions about their symptoms and their experiences.


The following factors are thought to make people more likely to develop PTSD: An earlier life-threatening event or trauma, such as being abused as a child; a history of mental illness; the experience of being exposed to trauma as a victim or witness; being hurt during the event or feeling helpless during the trauma; having a severe reaction during the trauma such as crying, shaking, vomiting or feeling apart from one’s surroundings; a lack of support from family or friends; recent stressful life changes; alcohol abuse. Women are also considered more likely to suffer from PTSD than men.


Treatment can reduce symptoms and help veterans feel more in control of their emotions; but even with treatment, bad memories may continue surfacing.


There has been controversy about that. Some people have argued that use of the word “disorder” stigmatizes the problem and makes it harder for veterans to seek help. They say it should be considered an injury — not a disorder or character weakness.

Sources: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; the National Center for PTSD; CNN; University of Rochester and UCLA

Online resources

PTSD: Weakness or Wound?

Study links PTSD to Hidden Head Injuries Suffered in Combat
University of Rochester Medical Center


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