1 in 4 Stroke Survivors Suffers From PTSD, Study Finds

And that can pose serious psychological challenges, researcher says

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By Barbara Bronson Gray

HealthDay Reporter WEDNESDAY, June 19 (HealthDay News) -- Many of those lucky enough to survive a stroke find that they're soon faced with another serious challenge. Nearly one-quarter will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study.

The data show that experiencing a life-threatening health crisis can pose serious psychological challenges, said study lead author Donald Edmondson, an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

[See: Your Stroke Risk Can Shrink With 7 Lifestyle Changes.]

Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically is associated with combat veterans and sexual assault survivors, the researchers discovered that patients who develop a serious health condition followed by intense treatment may have mental problems that frequently go unrecognized by physicians and family members.

The study, published online June 19 in the journal PLoS ONE, also found that people who develop PTSD after a stroke could have a greater risk for heart problems or another stroke because of the psychological issues they endure.

[See: 7 Steps Toward a Healthy Heart (and Long Life).]

PTSD is an intense physical and emotional response to a life-threatening or traumatic event. The symptoms fall into three broad types: reliving the event, avoiding usual activities and hyperarousal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Peter Cornelis, 62, the trauma of enduring a series of strokes followed by brain surgery left him unable to move for months. He remembers lying in bed mentally designing paintings to help him occupy endless hours with nothing to do.

Over the past four years, he has been slowly rehabilitated, and he now walks with a cane. Although he leads an art class at the local community center in Wantagh, N.Y., he avoids going outside as much as possible, because he suffers from PTSD.

[See: Taking Heart Drugs? 9 Supplements to Avoid (and Some Alternatives).]

Cornelis said he has little control over his emotions -- from crying when he reads a sentimental greeting card to laughing at nothing at all. Sometimes he blows up without knowing why. He is anxious around people, worrying about how he'll react and how others will respond to him. "And I'm afraid," he said. "Could I have another stroke? Can I make plans for the future?"

But people think he has recovered, Cornelis said. "I look fine, talk perfectly," he said.

Cornelis is not alone. Each year, nearly 300,000 stroke survivors will develop PTSD symptoms because of their health scare, the researchers said. Twenty-three percent will develop PTSD symptoms, and for about 11 percent, the condition will become chronic.

For the study, the researchers analyzed nine prior studies of stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are blood vessel blockages that break up quickly and dissolve without lasting damage. Together, the studies included more than 1,100 survivors who were either interviewed or given questionnaires.

[See: 10 Salt Shockers That Could Make Hypertension Worse.]

PTSD is triggered in people who have strokes and TIAs by a variety of sequential factors, Edmondson said. First, there is a significant, terrifying, life-threatening event that is often accompanied by internal cues, such as a rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. "It's called the fight or flight response, and it's our innate response to fear," he said. An emotional ambulance ride, invasive tests, hospitalization and sometimes surgery follow.

Next, people must adjust to the shock of what has just happened, Edmondson said. "We walk through our lives with the naive belief that we're invulnerable," he said. "Often what is traumatic [about a stroke or heart attack] is that such unspoken assumptions are broken."

And once home, physical and environmental cues can stimulate the fear response all over again. Unlike a soldier who can leave the battlefield, stroke patients typically return to the place where the crisis occurred. Many patients may simply see the living room chair where they had the stroke and immediately feel PTSD symptoms.