Diagnosis of Chronic Illness Could Raise Risk for PTSD

Receiving a diagnosis of a serious medical problem can be shocking, even traumatic. People who find out they have cancer, tumors, or other potentially life-threatening issues may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). Research has shown that even chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, can lead to PTSD because of the way they sometimes impair a person’s quality of life. However, less is known about PTSD as it relates to multiple sclerosis (MS). MS can cause significant physical impairment, but also manifests through flare-ups. Therefore, many people with MS have periods of remission during which they experience little physical impairment as well as periods of significant disability. These flare-ups can persist indefinitely, making symptom severity independent of illness duration.

Alyssa Counsell of the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina in Canada wanted to find out if clients living with MS were at risk for PTSD. Counsell interviewed 126 individuals diagnosed with MS and asked them to report their history with MS, including symptom severity and duration. She also gathered information regarding comorbid depression, anxiety, and other health issues. She found that the participants with the most debilitating symptoms had the highest levels of PTSD, regardless of how long they had been living with MS. Additionally, those with comorbid health issues, including depression and anxiety, were more likely to have symptoms of PTSD than those with MS only.

Counsell also noted that not all participants reported their MS diagnosis as being a traumatic experience. However, rates of PTSD were significantly higher among those who did. Individuals with anxiety and MS reported the most severe symptoms of PTSD. The participants who did not view their MS as traumatic may have been living with the issue long enough to have adjusted psychologically. Regardless, the results of the study shed light on the link between PTSD and MS. “The findings suggests that individuals who experience severe physical health problems may be at an increased risk of developing PTSD and should be directed to additional mental health services,” Counsell said.

Counsell, A., Hadjistavropoulos, H. D., Kehler, M. D., Asmundson, G. J. G. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in individuals with multiple sclerosis. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029338

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  • Rainey


    September 6th, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    I have a hard time with how Virtual reality therapy would work because for me it seesm like that would be like making someone totally relive the things that they are trying to get away from. How could that be healthier for someone? I know that the whole point of therapy is to allow you to face all of your fears in a way that is safe and non threatening so that you will be alble to process through them and work past the trauma that is has caused you. So how does this fit into that puzzle?

  • Hayden


    September 6th, 2012 at 4:29 PM

    Anyone who is blindsided with this kind of diagnosis is certain to have feelings of sadness and more than likely depression to go along with those issues.
    This is a big life change that many of them will be afcing, sometimes without the support of friends and family, often because many of them do not know how to react to the news.
    I have read of others who have been faced with potentially life threatening and life altering news such as this and they too have been affected so adversely that they are prone to reporting symptoms of PTSD.
    There has to be a better system of support and network arranged for people who are confronted with these kinds of changes to help them make the necessary transitions.

  • lacey


    September 7th, 2012 at 3:59 AM

    Getting news like this can be terribly devastating. Most of us don’t know how we would even handle getting news like this until it hits us and by then I suppose it’s too late to prepare. Many people will stress so much over a chronic diagnosis that they can develop symptoms of PTSD, strangely enough. They might experience symptoms that are not even remotely related to the illness at hand, but that is how their body and mind begin going through the process of coping with the fact that this is now a part of their lives. So not only are they faced with battling a chronic illness but now they have other mental health issues that they have to sort through as well.

  • Jaques.K


    September 7th, 2012 at 5:10 AM

    Any shocking news could bring this, it is not surprising. And when it is with regards to your own health there could be damage psychologically.I think even disclosure of such news should be done in the best way possible and the client would need to be prepared mentally in such a scenario.

  • franklin


    September 7th, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    always good to have a family member or trusted friend by your side when there’s an issue with regard to health.it gives not only the support of a person being with you but mentally it does a lot more.and this chance of ptsd after being diagnosed can greatly be reduced with such a support system in my opinion.

  • Bernie


    September 7th, 2012 at 2:41 PM

    I read this but I guess I am still not too sure how PTSD becomes a factor with all of this? I have always thought PTSD was something, you know, experienced by vets or crime victims, not someone suffering from an illness. I know that this can clearly impact how a person lives, but I guess (call me ignorant) I really don’t see this as a kind of trauma that you would relive over and over again. I can get it that you might get depressed, panicked, etc. but my whole idea of PTSD is flashbacks and nightmares and stuff like that, and I have a hard time making these kinds of connections with an illness diagnosis. I really don’t mean to demean, but I would love to hear from someone who has experienced this who can tell me what I am missing.

  • moira s

    moira s

    September 8th, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Bernie I suppose you have never had someone experience this is their life otherwise you would not be quite so quick to dismiss the fact that chronic illness can bring a lot of pressure on someone and their family. This diagnosis in and of itself is a traumatic event for many people: how will they pay their bills? Who will take care of their families? I think that those few things right there would be enough to cause PTSD. Sorry that you seem to disagree with that assessment.



    September 9th, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    “Research has shown that even chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia, can lead to PTSD because of the way they sometimes impair a person’s quality of life.”

    I would have thought PTSD could happen only immediately after the news of diagnosis.Is that not how PTSD generally comes up? Or are there other scenarios too in which PTSD can come at a slower pace and not due to a sudden shock?

  • Michelle


    September 10th, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    RHONDA- I am not sure about this but I think that there are many times when PTSD can come on after a much longer period of time, that’s why sometimes the arrival of the symptoms can be shocking. You may have thought that you had buried those feelings but then eventually out they come and can be pretty painful to have to deal with.

  • Amy


    January 29th, 2013 at 8:56 PM

    As someone who has MS, I can speak to this personally. As previosly mentioned…your ability to provide for yourself or family, heath insurance, caring for yourself and your family, and numerous other stressors are everpresent. Not only does the diagnosis, injecting yourself with needles, required MRIs, waiting for updates about your condition affect you, but the progression of the disease does as well. Every time you have an unexpected relapse something can be taken from you: your ability to walk, vision, cognition, memory, bowel & bladder problems etc. If these things aren’t traumatizing, I don’t know what is!

  • Jenny


    April 5th, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    I can only imagine how one would feel when having a diagnoses like this and it must be devastating.

    I agree with what some others have said here too though and can’t see how some of the things mentioned would fit the diagnostic criteria for DSM 5 or the ICD.
    “Criterion A: stressor

    The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required:
    1 Direct exposure.
    2. Witnessing, in person.
    3. Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
    4. Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures.”

    The actual treatment involved for something such as ms I could certainly see could fit if it was violent.

    If people have symptoms of PTSD but do not meet criterion A then they can be diagnosed with an adjustment disorder.

    There is a physiological difference between PTSD and other traumatic reactions and it comes down to re living the traumatic event many times a week. There are thresholds that have to met.

    Just because something is different it doesn’t in any way invalidate it.

    I have to say though that I have fibromyalgia and can’t see any way that could lead to PTSD even conceptually.

  • K


    September 2nd, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    I hate reading comments. Everyone becomes a doctor online.
    Go ask an actual doctor. Get an actual diagnoses from a real health professional. Don’t just rely on Dr. Google or the crap one person spews as absolute truth because it happened once to someone they know.
    Be real people.

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