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PTSD in Burn Injury Survivors

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How to recognize the symptoms and seek treatment

In the past few decades, advances in burn care treatment have dramatically increased the chance that a person will survive and even thrive after a burn injury. But even with these tremendous strides, the emotional impact of a burn injury can last for months and even years after your body has healed.

Fortunately, the Temple Burn Center and other advanced burn programs across the country are focused on treating every aspect of burn injury, including emotional well-being.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder After Burn Injury

We often associate post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, with soldiers who’ve engaged in war or victims of violent crimes. But PTSD can also result from the shock and stress of an injury, such as a burn from exposure to a chemical, electricity or fire.

While it’s normal to experience depression, anxiety or withdrawal after a traumatic event, these feelings usually go away after a short period of time. It’s when you continue to experience a fight-flight-freeze response that may signal a problem.

Symptoms of PTSD After Burn Injury

Emotional symptoms can occur long after your burn injury has healed. So long, in fact, that you may not realize these symptoms are related to your traumatic experience. Symptoms of PTSD can surface 3 months to 1 year after the event. Thankfully, there is help.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any or all of the following:

  • Re-experiencing, including flashbacks, bad dreams or scary thoughts
  • Avoidance of places, events or feelings you associate with the injury
  • Arousal, feeling on edge all the time or easily startled
  • Thinking problems or moodiness, including negativity or distorted thinking

If you’ve had all of these symptoms within the past month, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of your burn injury.

You Have Options for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Recovery

Recovering from PTSD after a burn injury takes time. It involves a number of strategies that work together to help you heal.

1. What your doctor can do:

Your doctor can monitor your care and refer you to professionals such as psychotherapists who specialize in PTSD treatment. You may also take prescription medications such as antidepressants to help you overcome feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety and numbness while you work on other aspects of recovery.

2. What a therapist can do:

Psychotherapy is as individual as you and may include:

  • Talk therapy in a group, or one-on-one with a therapist
  • Education and behavior modification skills to help you learn how to cope with your reactive feelings
  • Trigger awareness, which helps you identify and defuse negative stimuli
  • Exposure therapy, to help you face your trauma and overcome it in a safe environment
  • Cognitive restructuring, which helps you rethink the event in a realistic way

3. What you can do:

You can take an active part in your healing process too. Try some of the following —

  • Seek support from family and friends, who can keep you company when you’re feeling down.
  • Engage in relaxation activities, including yoga (look for nidra classes or workshops on breathing or pranayama), tai chi, meditation and exercise. Getting out of your head and back into your body may help relieve anxiety.
  • Learn as much as you can about PTSD through research and reading. Make sure to visit credible health sites, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or your local hospital website for vetted information.

Remember always that you are not alone. Others have gone through similar experiences and help each other through support groups for burn survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder:

Members of these support groups offer advice on how they cope, treatment strategies you may not have considered, and new ways of thinking about the experience.

Helpful Resources

Looking for more information?

Stephanie Velez Watson, PT, DPT, CWS

Stephanie is a physical therapist and certified wound care specialist in the Temple Burn Center. In addition, she helps facilitate the monthly Burn Support Group, manages the Burn Support Group Facebook page, educates on burn prevention at community health fairs and teaches burn rehabilitation to Doctoral Physical Therapy students annually.

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