The War Is Not Over: PTSD Common Among ICU Survivors.

The ICU is a terrifying place. The noise, the alarms, the invasive tubes and wires, and the loss of control all contribute to an overall feeling of anxiety and stress in patients and in families. Add to that the emotional burden of being ill or having a sick family member or friend, and you have a perfect storm for the development of post traumatic stress disorder.

As a health-care provider working in the ICU, it is easy to forget how desensitized we are to this environment. Recently, I took a phone call from my wife (who is a nonmedical professional) in the ICU. After a few minutes, she asked in a panicked voice, “Do you need to go get that alarm”?! And of course, it was a “first-level” alarm that I had completely tuned out and hadn’t even noticed. Looking around the ICU as I write this, I’m certain that I’m not the only one who is numb to these stimuli.

In a recent issue of CHEST, Dr. Bienvenu and colleagues report the findings of a study looking at posttraumatic stress disorder in the survivors of acute lung injury. They interviewed 60 survivors of acute lung injury 1 to 5 years after their hospitalizations. The authors compared a self-reported screening tool and a clinician-administered tool. They found that 27% of patients in this cohort had PTSD or partial PTSD, and that the self-reported screening tool was a reliable method of assessing PTSD in this population. This is promising, since a self-reported tool can gain more widespread use and may be able to help future investigators better determine factors associated with the development of PTSD in the ICU survivors.

Determining who would be likely to develop PTSD would be an important advance in critical care. Often I think we are surprised at how even our “good” outcomes can have long-standing functional problems following their ICU course. In the perfectly titled accompanying editorial Surviving the ICU Does Not Mean That the War Is Over, Dr. Schelling tells the story of one patient who survived extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) only to report horrific memories of scenes from an apocalyptic warfare. These memories significantly impacted his quality of life and functional recovery, even though his overall outcome was “good.”

These studies add to the growing literature about the long-term effects of our treatments. I’d be eager to see more. We do not consider this important area of quality enough. With studies like this to help give us better tools, hopefully we will see more investigations into the long-term impacts of the life-saving therapies we provide.

Chris Carroll, MD, FCCP is a Pediatric Intensivist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and my Social Media co-editor at Chest Journal. He is on twitter @ChrisCarrollMD. Be sure to check out our posts at the ACCP Thought Leaders Blog, where this article  was originally posted.

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