Many people are exposed to trauma during their lives, whether they experience it themselves, personally witness it happen to someone else, or discover that a loved one had a traumatic event. Afterwards, it is normal for anyone to have several distressing symptoms in the days and weeks that follow, which in most cases, subside naturally over time. However, when symptoms persist and interfere with academic, occupational, relational, and social functioning it may be a sign of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a potentially debilitating condition that can significantly disrupt a person’s life. PTSD can affect anyone—even young children. Being abused, physical and sexual assault, military combat, and motor vehicle accidents are common causes of PTSD. This condition is also seen in first responders—firefighters, police, and EMTs—who are routinely on the front lines attending to emergencies, severe or fatal injuries, and crisis situations. The repeated exposure to traumatic circumstances and critical incidence stress have been shown to significantly impact mental health and can be devastating to the personal and professional lives of first responders. It is important to understand that PTSD is not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness, rather it develops as a response to traumatic events. However, if it is left untreated, PTSD can cause a wide array of serious symptoms and even lead to suicide.
Approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults suffer from PTSD, and an estimated 1 in 11 will be diagnosed with the condition at some point during their lifetime. It is believed to affect a higher proportion of veterans—between 11 and 15%—especially those who served in combat areas. However, for Vietnam vets, the lifetime rate of PTSD is closer to 30%, which is similar to the rate seen in first responders. Recently published research has also found that a notable number of health care professionals working in hospitals during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic developed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
PTSD can affect males and females, however, females are 2-3 times more likely than males to develop the condition. In addition, girls tend to suffer trauma at a younger age when it has a greater impact on brain development.
Our brains are wired to alarm us about the presence and threat of danger or death, so having a biological, physiological, or psychological response to a traumatic event is normal. In general, directly experiencing or personally witnessing any frightening, dangerous, or life-threatening situation—or even the perception that a situation is life-threatening—can trigger PTSD symptoms. Learning that something traumatic happened to a loved one can also lead to PTSD.
Common causes of PTSD include:
Most psychiatrists never look at the brain and make their diagnostic assessment based only on a patient’s reported symptoms, which is why many people are misdiagnosed or prescribed the wrong treatment. SPECT scans are very helpful in determining whether a patient has PTSD or another disorder. A research study conducted at The Mind Research Foundation evaluated the brain blood flow patterns in TBI and PTSD—two conditions that have many overlapping symptoms. The study found that brain SPECT imaging was able to differentiate the two conditions with 89% accuracy. This research was recognized by Discover Magazine as #19 of the top 100 science stories of 2015. At Amen Clinics, a comprehensive evaluation that includes brain SPECT imaging paves the way for people with PTSD to get an accurate diagnosis and more effective treatment that leads to faster healing.
People who are suffering with PTSD often have overactivity in multiple areas of the brain. On SPECT scans, abnormally high activity is commonly seen in the deep limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus. In addition to being a very useful tool for determining a correct diagnosis, brain SPECT imaging helps those with PTSD in other ways too, including:
SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates activity (blood flow) in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. In a healthy “active” scan, blue represents average blood flow and red and white represent increasingly higher levels of blood flow. In the healthy scan on the left, the most active area is the cerebellum, located in the back/bottom part of the brain, and this is normal to see. The PTSD scan on the right reveals high activity in the deep limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate gyrus in a “diamond pattern,” which is a classic finding in cases of PTSD.
A person may develop symptoms of PTSD shortly after a traumatic event, or it can take days, weeks, or months for them to emerge. In other cases, symptoms may not develop until years later when triggered by a new trauma. When this happens, it can be difficult for someone to connect their distressing symptoms with a trauma they experienced years before.
The symptoms of PTSD can range from mild to severe, and include:
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