PTSD and Medical trauma

When our son was born in 1982 and flown 750 miles away for life-saving surgery, we asked the medical professionals if the surgery and recovery would somehow affect him later on. “No,” we were told repeatedly, “he’s too young to remember. Besides newborns don’t feel pain.”

Even though the opposite has been proven true since our son’s surgery, the news hasn’t reached segments of the greater medical community. In fact, a mom whose newborn was in a major hospital’s neonatal intensive care (NICU) in December of 2009 was told the same thing we were. “She won’t remember. She’s too young.”

A recent national conference hosted by the Intensive Trauma Therapy Institute in Morgantown, West Virginia focused on the topic. One of the therapists from the institute, Linda Gantt, said the likelihood of PTSD developing after invasive medical procedures during childhood depends upon several contributing factors.

Factor #1: Timing

PTSD is less likely to occur if a medical procedure is scheduled and there’s adequate time to prepare the child beforehand. PTSD is much more likely to occur in emergency situations. Also, if the child’s preparation is age-appropriate, PTSD is less likely to occur.

Factor #2: Anesthesia

The kind of anesthetic used is a major factor. General, local or topical anesthetic should be selected based on the procedure and age of the patient. A patient’s inability to go under increases the likelihood of PTSD developing, as does “coming light” or “partial awakening” during the procedure.

Factor #3: Age of Patient

The younger the patient, the greater the risk of PTSD developing.

  • The risk is greatest when kids are non-verbal, birth to age 3. Even when they become verbal, they are unable to access their non-verbal memories using words.
  • Children who are verbal, but still in the concrete thinking stage (ages 4 – 10) are also at risk because their reasoning skills are very literal. They can’t yet think abstractly.
  • Children from the ages of 12-18 are least likely to develop PTSD if their abstract thinking skills are in place.

Factor #4: Previous Trauma History

Children who have experienced previous significant trauma (sexual abuse, physical abuse, life-threatening situations) are more likely to develop PTSD after medical treatment.

The next post in this series will explore the general principle behind the occurrence of PTSD and how it can be successfully treated.

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