Vets with PTSD Have More Physical Ailments, Especially Females

Soldiers returning home from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who are newly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are affected by their medical conditions more than previously thought, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Health Care System and Stanford University have discovered that Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans diagnosed with PTSD experience more physical ailments than veterans without mental health conditions. In particular, female veterans with PTSD were found to be more susceptible to physical health issues than their male counterparts.

Researcher Susan Frayne and colleagues surveyed the prevalence of physical health issues treated among a total of 90,558 veterans who sought medical treatment through the VA Administration’s services during 2006–2007. In their study, the researchers categorized the veterans into four groups: those with PTSD, those with stress-related disorders, those with other mental health issues, and those without any mental health issues.

From their assessment, the researchers found that women with PTSD had a median number of 7 medical conditions whereas those women without a mental health condition had a median of 4.5 medical conditions. Male veterans, on the other hand, had a median number of 5 medical conditions if they also had PTSD, but had a median of 4 medical conditions if they did not have a mental health condition. For female veterans, the most common physical ailments treated were lumbosacral spine disorders, headache, and lower extremity joint disorders. For males, the most common conditions treated were lumbosacral spine disorders, lower extremity joint disorders, and hearing problems. These high-occurring conditions were most prevalent among veterans with PTSD compared to those without a mental health condition.

The researchers recommend that clinical care programs available to veterans should be more closely tied to the VA’s medical care services. The integration of these health care services should also target those who are most at risk of high occurrences of health conditions, like female veterans with PTSD, and those with severe medical problems, such as musculoskeletal conditions. This study suggests that the VA Administration is not just dealing with an overwhelming amount of PTSD diagnoses among their returning veterans, but it must also provide adequate funding and staff for both mental and physical health services in order to accommodate these veterans’ health care needs. Because these younger veterans were returning to the VA hospitals to treat multiple health conditions, the researchers suggest that early intervention is needed to reduce the burden of medical illness and health care costs among veterans with PTSD. By doing so, the VA can better treat veterans’ conditions and ensure their quality of life over time.

The researchers’ new study is available online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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