The Mighty Logo

Medical PTSD: It's Real and Impacts My Everyday Life

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Most of us don’t like going to the doctor or getting blood drawn or being in a hospital. But can you go so far as to say you’re traumatized by it? Some of us can. Medical trauma or medical post-traumatic stress disorder is painfully under-represented, yet overwhelmingly common.

• What is PTSD?

What Is Medical PTSD?

Simply put, medical PTSD is PTSD. Most, if not all, typical symptoms of PTSD are congruent with those of Medical PTSD. The only difference is in the traumatic event itself.

Medical PTSD is caused by trauma from life-threatening illnesses, medical malpractice, traumatic birth, severe pediatric illnesses and more.

Just like veteran PTSD isn’t just war, medical PTSD isn’t just hospitals and doctors. Everyone has unique triggers, such as sounds and smells that remind them of their traumatic experience. Just like any other form of PTSD, those with medical PTSD can still have flashbacks, feelings of panic and are often suspended in “fight or flight.”

Medical PTSD is different, however, in that your trigger is often your own body. Fear of a life-threatening medical emergency or the worsening of an ongoing condition can lead to symptoms similar to hypochondria. Hyper-awareness of your own body can cause severe anxiety about your illness worsening or developing new symptoms or even new diseases.

Medical PTSD can also translate into complex PTSD in the case of those with long-term or incurable chronic illness. Memory problems and low self-esteem are significant issues I personally face, and so do a fair number of those dealing with medical PTSD.

For more information on symptoms of Medical PTSD, check out this article by Psychology Today.

My Story And Experiences

I have a tethered spinal cord and have had it since birth. I’ve had 23 surgeries in my 21 years, two of them emergency bowel surgeries. My experience are very different than most people with Medical PTSD. I’m not afraid of hospitals, needles or doctors.

Still, my PTSD affects me daily. I can’t handle beeping noises (such as certain alarm clocks or even people mimicking beeping) because they remind me of hospital monitors and make me woozy. The smell of cleaning products makes me feel ill. My relationship with my body is extremely poor due to scars, my ileostomy and “flaws” I see due to my chronic illness. I have some symptoms of hypochondria (not to the extent that those diagnosed with the illness itself have) which make me on edge about any pain or unfamiliar feelings. I’m very fearful of the direction my illness will take me.

Many struggle to see how my illness would affect me beyond when I’m released from the hospital after surgery. I struggle daily with fears about what will happen to my body.

For instance, because of the amount of medication I take daily I have a strong fear of taking the wrong thing or accidentally overdosing. As a result, I always count my pills before I take them, sometimes two or three times, even spitting them out to recount in case I missed something.

One morning I woke up very early and took my nighttime pills instead of my morning ones. I panicked and immediately started gagging myself. I unsuccessfully gagged myself for over half an hour. Despite calling the pharmacy and being told that I wasn’t in danger, I was sure I had dangerously low blood pressure and kept rechecking throughout the day.

Similarly, even a smell can trigger a severe panic. I was once in a building that to everyone else didn’t have a smell, but to me smelled like medical tape. I felt ill and woozy and on the verge of a panic attack. Despite being on the verge of hyperventilating, I held my breath the whole time and ended up hiding in the bathroom (which smelled of far worse, but less traumatic smells).


Especially with life-long chronic illness, it can be difficult to accept that you’ve been traumatized when this is simply your whole life. I often say I’m grateful I’ve never experienced anything else, but it’s a double-edged sword. By not experiencing anything but trauma and having the source of your triggers by your own body and thus inescapable, you can often be trapped in a state of “Chronic PTSD.”

Medical PTSD isn’t nearly as well recognized or well researched as it needs to be. MD Edge states an estimate of 12-25% of people with life-threatening medical events may experience PTSD, yet it is one of the more understudied forms of PTSD. Spreading awareness and having patience with those dealing with chronic and acute illnesses is vital. You never know what trauma chronic illness can cause.

Check out this contributor’s blog here.

Photo by Nguyen Thu Hoai on Unsplash
Originally published: September 22, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home