Can MS Give You PTSD?

Can having a chronic illness, like Multiple Sclerosis, cause a person to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Many people will see that question and quickly dismiss it. PTSD is something that veterans returning from war have, not people with an autoimmune disease! But if we delve a little deeper into PTSD and chronic illness, it’s not as far fetched as it may initially sound.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental illness that can develop after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event. A situation that evokes an overwhelming amount of stress, so much so that the brain has trouble coping. We often associate the horrors of war with causing this, but that is far from the only potential source. In fact, sexual assault, car accidents, and childbirth are common examples of non-war related traumatic events that trigger PTSD. Not everyone who experiences the same event will get PTSD (if there is something every person with MS should know by know, it’s that everyone’s brain is different and reacts differently). PTSD often causes the person to relive their traumatic event. This causes them to experience a wide range of emotions, such as fear, anger, guilt, terror, shock, and nervousness. It can also cause a person to begin to avoid people and situations that their brain associates with the traumatic event. While these all may sound like common occurrences after a distressing event (they are), the key to recognizing them as PTSD is that all of this occurs over an extended period of time, so much so that it begins to affect the way a person lives their life.

Is chronic illness traumatic?

After you learn a little more about PTSD, it becomes clear that any traumatic event can be a cause. What is traumatic to one brain isn’t necessarily so for another. While I hate to say it, there are a lot of things about a chronic illness like MS that can be extremely traumatic to different people. Common procedures like MRIs, spinal taps, and even self-administering injections can be quite traumatic to some people. I can’t imagine a severely claustrophobic person having to undergo the amount of MRIs that most of us are put through. To them, having MS must seem like hell on earth simply because of its nature as the most common diagnostic tool. Severe exacerbations can be extremely traumatic as well (waking up unable to walk, as has happened to me, that kind of thing can affect you), as can other common occurrences, like falls.

The consequences of MS

The consequences of MS can be extremely distressing to some as well. Having to use a wheelchair may not be a big deal to most, but for others, it can be devastating. Having to give up a career that you’ve worked your whole life for can also be traumatic. There are some for whom the moment they were diagnosed with the incurable illness is extremely traumatic. So yes, for some of the population, there are parts of having a chronic illness that are very traumatic.

Can a chronic illness lead to PTSD though?

While I don’t think it’s common, I’d say that it’s certainly possible. For some people, elements of having a chronic illness can be extremely traumatic. They can relive and suffer from those moments to the point that it has an adverse effect on their lives. Even if someone with MS doesn’t develop actual PTSD, we know that the chances that they will suffer from other forms of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and mood swings, are much greater than the normal population. You don’t need to be diagnosed with full-blown PTSD to be suffering from the trauma of chronic illness.

Mental health is a real challenge

Mental health can be a real challenge to those with MS, and as I’ve said in the past, everyone with MS should have a mental health professional in their MS health care team. They are every bit as important as a good neurologist, just as these mental health symptoms can be every bit as debilitating as the physical ones.

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