Is the ICU Causing PTSD for Patients & Families?

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By, Katie Leander

Many people would think that being discharged from the hospital after a stay in the ICU would be considered a victory and that life was on its way to returning to normal. But, new research, as reported in The New York Times recently, shows otherwise. The article titled, “Nightmares After the ICU,” discusses a 2-year longitudinal study from the Feb 26, 2013 issue of Psychological Medicine. The data revealed that 35% of the ICU patients studied suffered from ICU-induced PTSD.

When we think of PTSD, we typically think of soldiers who have returned from combat and how they repeatedly relieve traumatic experiences that they have had. Interestingly, ICU patients relieve not only their real traumatic experiences from the ICU (like waking up on a ventilator and having difficulty communicating, or waking up after being sedated and discovering that they are restrained), but also terrifying hallucinations that they had while in the ICU. It is widely known that many medications used in the ICU can often cause vivid hallucinations. And researchers are now learning that these hallucinations are so real that patients simply can’t shake them. As long as two years post-ICU stay, patients are still reliving them.

And, another study by the same author shows that the trauma suffered in ICUs is not just limited to the patients who endured the treatment. Even spouses and other family members were found to also suffer from PTSD post-ICU stay. Needless to say, high-tech interventions combined with critical illness and near-death experiences is a lot for people to endure emotionally –even those who are merely by-standers.

For those who work in these environments, it becomes easy to view such high-level, sophisticated care as a “typical” day at work. But, it should be remembered that for most people, the ICU is anything but typical. While such care is necessary and wanted in these situations, it would behoove care givers to keep a healthy perspective and remember that this is a very overwhelming and scary experience for most people, even if it is for the greater good.

Katie Leander is a Writer & Content Strategist with, the leading provider of medical malpractice insurance in the country. You can find her on Google+.