Vicious cycle: Heart attacks can trigger PTSD, study says

The toll of a heart attack may be more than just physical. Patients who suffer heart attacks could also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- which could raise the risk of another heart attack, according to a study in the journal PLoS ONE.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that often develops after a traumatic event involving the threat of injury or death, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can cause debilitating flashbacks, trouble in relationships and difficulties with sleep.

It’s perhaps best known as one of the hallmarks of soldiers returning home from war, but it can occur after many different types of events, including domestic violence, terrorism, even natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. By definition, a heart attack falls within this category.

To test this relationship, the researchers looked at the results from 24 studies involving nearly 2,400 heart patients, and found that about 12% of heart attack patients went on to develop PTSD symptoms. And 4% of heart patients met the full criteria for the disorder.


The researchers also found that those heart attack patients with PTSD symptoms were twice as likely to have a second heart attack or die as the heart attack patients without PTSD symptoms.

So if there were some treatment to reduce the heart-attack-linked PTSD, perhaps this could help reduce the risk of a second heart attack -- though further research is needed on this point, the authors wrote.

Other work has shown it’s possible to reduce PTSD by dealing with the problem very soon after the trauma. A 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at U.S. soldiers wounded during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and found that giving them morphine within a few hours of their injury essentially dulled the memory of the trauma -- and actually reduced their risk of developing PTSD by 50%.

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