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What is Medical Trauma?

medical trauma
Medical trauma can be defined as a set of psychological and physiological responses that happen due to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and terrifying treatment experiences

Mentions of medical trauma 

Gendered language according to research material 

Medical trauma can be defined as a set of psychological and physiological responses that happen due to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and terrifying treatment experiences. For example, this type of trauma is separate from external trauma, like a car accident, because the external threat also ceases when the event ends. 

Medical trauma can be a distressing condition faced by people who have gone through trauma due to illness or bad experiences in a medical setting. While it is not an official clinical diagnosis, it can lead to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or chronic pain. 

Since medical trauma is not always something people talk about, it can often get overlooked. For example, someone may be dealing with complex emotions following a medical procedure, but they’re sent home without mental health care.

Our content team at LGBTQ and ALL have curated a series of articles on Trauma Responses.

Who Is at Risk for Developing Medical Trauma?

Even if you’ve experienced a terrifying experience in a medical setting, it doesn’t mean that you will experience medical trauma. Some people at a higher risk for medical trauma include someone with a history of anxiety, trauma, or other mental health issues. In addition, women are also more at stake than people who are BIPOC and POC. Many marginalized people are not given the best medical care or equal medical care or taken as seriously when talking to doctors about their concerns. This article from the Endometriosis Network of Canada talks in further depth about how Black patients who deal with endometriosis (a severe medical condition featuring chronic pain) face more barriers to receiving optimal health care. 

Statistics from the National Child, Traumatic Stress Network reported that about 80% of children and their families would have a traumatic stress reaction after a life-threatening illness and painful medical procedure. In addition, 20% to 30% of parents and 15% to 25% of children had persistent traumatic stress.

Medical trauma can also negatively impact relationships if the person develops depression or anxiety afterward. Suppose the trauma is related to pregnancy or childbirth or a medical condition that affects the genitals. In that case, there can be hypervigilance when it comes to protecting the bodies and can impact a person’s intimacy or sex life with another person.

Read: Trauma Responses – Part 1: Fight Response

How Do I Know if I Have This Condition?

Symptoms of medical trauma can be similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. For example:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Intrusive memories
  • Intense emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Exaggerated startle response

Some other signs of medical trauma can include:

  • Dissociation
  • Panic attacks
  • Feelings of rage or shame
  • Substance use 
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • More or less sensitivity to surroundings than normal
  • Sleep issues
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Skin rashes
  • Chronic pain  

In addition, many settings and experiences can trigger a stress response for people with medical trauma, like:

  • Doctor’s offices or clinics
  • Dentist’s offices
  • Places that have bright lights
  • Being touched by others
  • Scents, like disinfectants, for example

How Can You Better Manage Medical Trauma?

Counselors are an integral part of a person’s healing journey who has medical trauma. These mental health professionals will treat post-traumatic distress and facilitate post-traumatic growth. Like other traumas, medical trauma can be a way for a person to find significant change and discover meaning in their life. 

Many mental health professionals who have an approach where they value strength and wellness will work with survivors of medical trauma to meet their full healing potential. Essentially, counselors play a vital role in assisting clients with processing medical trauma cognitively and emotionally. During this process, clients can find new meaning and that health and wellbeing are beyond their existence before the trauma. All in all, seeking out counseling can positively impact a person and their experience of medical trauma.

What Types of Therapy Are Effective?

As previously mentioned, working with a mental health professional can be helpful when dealing with medical trauma. Here are some types of therapy that can be especially effective:

  • Somatic therapy. This approach is a body-based one to healing trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This type of therapy uses eye movements or other repetitive movements to reprocess traumatic memories.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). One branch of CBT is Trauma-focused CBT which can alleviate PTSD symptoms.

In Summary 

Living with the impacts of medical trauma can negatively impact a person’s physical and emotional wellbeing. People going through this type of trauma may have symptoms like fatigue, mental fogginess, dissociation, and many more that we previously mentioned. Depending on the circumstances of your medical trauma, you could be experiencing immense grief, anger, or other emotions.

What’s important to remember is that healing isn’t the linear process that people think it is. After some time and healing, you may be well on your way to coping better with your medical trauma and have it impact your life to a less intense degree. 

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.

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