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What is PTSD? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that sometimes happens after someone experiences or witnesses a life-threatening incident. The most common events that can lead to it include military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults. Physical symptoms vary, but include headaches, dizziness, and chest pain. PTSD is typically treated with psychotherapy and/or medication.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events, such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults, like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged. These symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.
PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms. It is further complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with related disorders, such as:
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Problems with memory and cognition
  • Other problems with physical and mental health.
The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person's ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

Understanding PTSD

PTSD is not a new disorder. There are written accounts of similar symptoms that go back to ancient times, and there is clear documentation in the historical medical literature, starting with the Civil War, when a PTSD-like disorder was known as "Da Costa's syndrome." There are particularly good descriptions of post-traumatic stress symptoms in the medical literature on combat veterans of World War II and also Holocaust survivors.
Careful research and documentation of PTSD began in earnest after the Vietnam War. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study estimated in 1988 that the prevalence of PTSD in that group was 15.2 percent at that time and that 30 percent had experienced the disorder at some point since returning from Vietnam.
PTSD has subsequently been observed in all veteran populations that have been studied, including World War II, Korean Conflict, and Persian Gulf populations, and in United Nations peacekeeping forces deployed to war zones around the world. There are remarkably similar findings of PTSD in military veterans in other countries. For example, Australian Vietnam veterans experience many of the same symptoms that American Vietnam veterans do.
PTSD is not only a problem for veterans, however. Although there are unique cultural and gender-based aspects of the disorder, it occurs in men and women, adults and children, Western and non-Western cultural groups, and all socioeconomic levels. A national study of American civilians conducted in 1995 estimated that at some point in their lifetime, 5 percent of men and 10 percent of women are affected by PTSD.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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