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Network Matters
News and Information for the
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Network

April 2015

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’s Effect on Physical Health 

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a commonly misunderstood condition in the world of mental health. Beyond the obvious psychological challenges, PTSD may lead to a host of adverse effects to physical health that should not be overlooked.

The challenges of PTSD are far from new, but this disorder is finding more relevance in the public eye lately. The 2014 film American Sniper brought the alarming reality of PTSD into the spotlight with its recounting of Navy SEAL and Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle’s tragic life story, and recent catastrophic events like the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings have evoked the symptoms in many victims and witnesses.

Physical complications

Yet the potential physical complications linked with the condition are just beginning to receive widespread attention. Whether symptoms are the result of active military service and the terrors of war, sexual assault, childhood abuse, a motor vehicle accident, or a natural disaster, people with PTSD are likely to have more physical health problems — such as hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and obesity — than those without the condition.

It is unknown whether there is a direct causal relationship between PTSD and certain physical health issues or if other unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, or poor diet and exercise habits play a role.
Whether directly or due to related factors, recent research indicates a link between PTSD and an increased risk of hypertension, which could help explain the elevated rates of heart disease in those with PTSD. Additionally, PTSD has been found to be a potential risk factor for metabolic syndrome and obesity, which can lead to a laundry list of other health complications, including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

There is a lot left to learn about the mental and physical effects of PTSD, but it is clear that collaboration between PCPs and behavioral health clinicians is imperative in patients who may have been exposed to traumatic events. Veterans, victims of past sexual assault, etc. should be screened for PTSD, and the link between physical problems and such emotional trauma should be a consideration. For more on factors that may make an individual more susceptible to PTSD, as well as symptoms to watch for, see a previous Network Matters article on this condition.

How Optum/UBH can help your patients — For complex clinical situations, Optum/UBH is available to provide consultative assistance. Practitioners can call the Optum/UBH Physicians Consultation Service at 800-292-2922. To refer a patient for behavioral health services and to facilitate the coordination of care, call Optum at 888-777-4742.

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Eric H. Schultz,
President and Chief Executive Officer

Richard Weisblatt PhD,
Senior Vice President, Provider Network

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