Stroke, PTSD, and Palliative Care

migraineIt felt like an ice-pick sliced through my brain. I fell to the bed, and when I got up an hour later, my left eye wouldn’t close and my face was drooping.

These are some of the sensations I experienced in 1999 when I experienced a small stroke in conjunction with a brain lesion. I was treated in the neuro-oncology unit of a major medical center for a period of weeks while doctors searched for what they believed would be brain cancer. Over a course of days, I lost my ability to walk, my vision went double, and I was unable to do anything but lie on one side and vomit prolifically.

According to Dr. Donald Edmondson, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author of a study published in the online journal PLOS ONE:

  • Almost one out of four stroke and mini-stroke patients, and one of eight heart attack victims, will experience PTSD symptoms within a year of the trauma

  • Younger stroke and heart attack patients have greater psychological issues and a higher risk of developing PTSD

  • Nearly one in four women diagnosed with breast cancer report PTSD symptoms shortly after diagnosis

  • PTSD symptoms have also appeared after diagnoses of prostate cancer and lymphoma

Nearly one in four stroke patients will develop significant PTSD symptoms within a year of experiencing medical trauma such as stroke. Those symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, smell and visual triggers. Similar research by Dr. Edmondson has found that as many as one in eight heart attack victims will experience PTSD symptoms within a year.

While doctors treat medical symptoms, they often don’t address the psychological impact often accompanies medical illness. However, palliative care can provide assistance at any level of illness and can be accessed at home or in a health care facility.

Palliative care is medical care provided by physicians, nurses and social workers that specializes in the relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.

It treats the whole person medically, emotionally, and spiritually. A palliative care team includes a physician and social worker and is called in at the request of the primary care physician, hospitalist, or nursing home physician. The team consults with family, caregivers and the patient with the goal of improving patient comfort and quality of life. Palliative care social workers may be particularly beneficial in helping patients to deal with the effects of PTSD.

If you or someone you know has experienced a stroke or other serious medical crisis, consult with your physician or social worker about the possibilities of engaging palliative care for the treatment of symptoms of PTSD.

4 thoughts on “Stroke, PTSD, and Palliative Care

  1. I have been told that a stay in ICU even without a final diagnosis of stroke or cancer can also result in PTSD.

    • Yes, Ginger, I’ve also heard that this is true, and medical research seems to bear this out.

  2. Hi, I had a double stroke in 2005. One was on the brain stem. I had to stay in an Surgical ICU ward; I wasn’t diagnosed with PTDS officially.

    If you get a few minutes, check out what I wrote about my experience and how I overcame the odds. Having a Stroke is a very humbling experience. I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to go through what I did.

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