A new study finds that adults with post-traumatic stress disorder are much more likely to experience sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular diseases, and numerous other health conditions. As such, researchers say that post-traumatic stress disorder should be considered a systemic disorder, as opposed to just a psychological condition.

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Researchers suggest that PTSD should be viewed as a systemic disorder.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, around 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. population experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives.

PTSD normally arises as a result of witnessing a shocking, dangerous, or life-threatening event, and it is particularly common among people in the military.

Symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, frightening thoughts, tense feelings, and avoidance of places or objects that cause memories of the traumatic event to resurface.

With these symptoms in mind, PTSD is considered to be a mental health disorder. However, researchers of the new study – including Sarah C. McLeay of the University of Queensland in Australia – suggest that PTSD should instead be viewed as a systemic disorder, due to its associated comorbidities.

The team came to this conclusion after conducting an analysis of 298 Australian veterans aged between 60 and 88 years who had fought in the Vietnam War.

All participants underwent psychological assessments and interviews in order to identify any symptoms of PTSD. Data on the presence of 171 other health conditions were also gathered.

The final sample included 108 veterans who had been diagnosed with PTSD, and 106 controls who were trauma-exposed veterans without PTSD.

The results of the analysis – recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia – revealed that the mean total number of comorbidities was higher among veterans with PTSD than the controls, at 17.7 and 14.1, respectively.

“For 24 of 171 assessed clinical outcomes, morbidity was greater in the PTSD group, including for conditions of the gastrointestinal, hepatic, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, sleep disorders, and laboratory pathology measures,” explain McLeay and colleagues.

“In regression analyses including demographic factors, PTSD remained positively associated with 17 adverse outcomes; after adjusting for the severity of depressive symptoms, it remained significantly associated with ten,” they add.

Based on their findings, the researchers believe that PTSD should not be solely perceived as a mental health disorder. The team concludes that:

The higher frequency of comorbid physical conditions suggests that PTSD be conceptualized not as a purely mental disorder, but rather as a systemic disorder.

Integrated healthcare strategies directed at the psychological and physical health of patients with PTSD, as well as rigorous control of risk factors, are likely to improve their quality of life and their survival.”

In an editorial linked to the study, Prof. Alexander McFarlane, director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia, notes that treatments that only focus on psychological aspects of PTSD have “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,” adds Prof. McFarlane.

Learn how sleep may help to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.