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Learning About PTSD After a Stay in the ICU

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that can result from traumatic events. It can make you feel scared, confused, or angry. And you may have nightmares or flashbacks. PTSD can cause a lot of distress and can affect your daily life. But many people get better with treatment.

How can a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) lead to PTSD?

Being treated in the ICU may save your life, but it can be traumatic. People in the ICU may be hooked up to machines so they can't move. If they need a breathing tube, they can't talk. They may be afraid that they're going to die. And they may be alone because visitors are limited.

People in the ICU may be given sedative medicines, which can make them feel drowsy and confused. They may drift in and out of sleep and remember only parts of events. They may have nightmares or see or hear things that aren't really there (hallucinations). Later, they may have scary memories that may or may not be real. For example, people might think that doctors or nurses were hurting them instead of helping them.

These experiences may lead to PTSD. It's more likely to happen to people who've been diagnosed with depression or anxiety in the past.

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event. But they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go.

You may have PTSD if you:

  • Feel upset by things that remind you of what happened.
  • Have nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event.
  • Avoid places or things that remind you of what happened.
  • Feel bad about yourself and the world.
  • Feel numb or lose interest in things you used to care about.
  • Feel that you're always in danger.
  • Feel anxious, jittery, or irritated.
  • Have trouble sleeping or concentrating.

Children can have PTSD too. They may have the symptoms listed above or other symptoms that vary based on their age. For example, young children may act out trauma through play, but older children may engage in risky behaviours.

If you think you or your child has PTSD, talk to your doctor or a counsellor. Treatment can help.

How is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treated?

Treatment for PTSD includes cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medicines. There are many types of CBT. You may need to try different types of treatment before you find the one that helps you. Treatment can help you to feel more in control of your emotions, have fewer symptoms, and enjoy life again.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.

Go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention webpage at http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help to find a suicide crisis prevention centre in your area if you or someone you know is:

  • Feeling hopeless or thinking of hurting or killing themselves.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • Your PTSD symptoms are getting worse.
  • You have new or worse symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.