5 PTSD Physical Symptoms To Watch For
Updated August 27, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
While many people think of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD as being something that only soldiers experience or something that only impacts a person’s mental or emotional health, both of those beliefs are myths. PTSD, as you’ll read below, is able to impact anyone, young or old, depending on the experiences and situations they have lived through. While many of the symptoms impact a person’s mental and emotional health, there are also physical symptoms that you may watch for.
PTSD is a severe mental health challenge that can impact every area of a person’s life, but it is treatable. Learning how to spot the symptoms of PTSD in yourself or others in your life is an essential first step for being able to reach out for help.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some people develop PTSD after experiencing life-threatening or traumatic events. It’s often associated with soldiers that have been to war but can be experienced by people that have survived events like accidents, natural disasters, abuse, and other trauma.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, and genes may make some people more likely to develop PTSD than others,” but that doesn’t mean men don’t also struggle with the disorder. There are many factors that determine who experiences PTSD following trauma and who doesn’t. Even though there are some indicators to share who is at a higher risk of developing PTSD, it’s not an absolute.
PTSD Physical Symptoms
Many people are more aware of the mental and emotional symptoms of the disorder. Not as many people are familiar with PTSD physical symptoms. While the physical symptoms are more comfortable to recognize, they can also be symptoms of other health conditions, both mental and physical.
If you recognize the following symptoms in yourself or someone you know, it’s an indicator that there is likely a problem that needs to be addressed.
While hyperarousal itself isn’t necessarily a physical symptom, it can cause physical symptoms. Some people that experience PTSD from traumatic situations they’ve lived through have a heightened sense of anxiety. This can cause them to be more sensitive to stimuli around them then they would be otherwise.
This hyperarousal can lead to responses such as startling easier, muscle tension, and increased heartbeat. While it can be triggered by thinking or talking about traumatic events, you may also experience it without really being able to pinpoint what has triggered it. It can leave you feeling like you’re in a constant state of alert, which can lead to other physical and mental symptoms of PTSD as well.
- Body Aches And Chronic Pain
There are different explanations available as to why someone with PTSD would suffer from physical symptoms like body aches and chronic pain. One explanation is that the two, PTSD and chronic pain, are not caused by each other but are both results of similar situations. For example, soldiers and first responders, such as firefighters, may experience chronic pain from the work they completed over time, and different situations they experienced during that time may have led to PTSD.
But another explanation is that some with PTSD end up with chronic pain because they struggle to do things like going outside or exercising because of the mental health challenges they face from PTSD.
One study titled The Relationship between PTSD and Chronic Pain explored the impact that PTSD had on those with chronic pain. The study found that people who suffer from both PTSD and chronic pain experience more physical pain than people who only have chronic pain.
Finally, there’s also the explanation that some with PTSD experience body aches and physical pain because the hyperarousal they experience causes muscle tension, which can lead to Chronic Myofascial Pain (CMP). CMP can be present in individual muscles or entire muscle groups.
- Digestive Issues
Some people experiencing PTSD struggle with digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In fact, research has found that 35% of people with PTSD have been reported to experience IBS.
IBS can cause diarrhea, constipation, or a mix of both. It is linked with anxiety, such as that caused by PTSD, and the symptoms can also lead to additional anxiety. For example, if you struggle with digestive issues, you may not want to leave the house as much for fear that you will end up with problems such as diarrhea.
It’s believed that the link between IBS and PTSD could be caused by the increased time that your body spends in the fight-or-flight response due to hyperarousal. This causes a release of certain hormones in the brain, which can disrupt the normal function of your colon, leading to constipation and/or diarrhea.
- Migraines Or Chronic Headaches
Migraines are more than just a headache. They generally include persistent throbbing of the head, usually one side more than the other, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light.
The National Headache Foundation reports that “In one study of 3,621 U.S. soldiers screened within 90 days of returning from a one-year combat tour in Iraq, soldiers were shown to have two to four times the incidence rate of migraine as compared to the general population.”
Multiple studies have made connections between PTSD and an increased chance of experiencing migraines. Many of these studies have found migraines to be more prevalent in women, but that doesn’t mean men aren’t affected as well.
When headaches and migraines aren’t correctly managed, they can impact your life by causing you to miss work and other activities and events in your personal life. If you’re experiencing migraines, you may find it helpful to rest in a quiet and darkroom.
- Trouble Sleeping
There are several different reasons why people suffering from PTSD experience trouble sleeping, as shared by the Veteran’s Affairs National Center for PTSD. Some of the reasons that it may be difficult for you to get the sleep and rest that you need is because of the other symptoms caused by PTSD. For example, if you feel that you feel that you’re always on alert, it’s difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. The feeling that you could be in danger can keep your body from relaxing and resting.
It’s also common for people struggling with anxiety to have difficulties sleeping. This is because stress can cause your mind to run with negative thoughts and worries. PTSD is an anxiety disorder. That means you may suffer from the same symptoms that other anxiety sufferers struggle with.
It’s also common for those with PTSD to have nightmares. Not only can this wake you up multiple times throughout the night, but if you experience them enough, it can make it harder to want to go to sleep in the first place for fear of having a nightmare.
Other Symptoms Of PTSD
Not all symptoms of PTSD are physical. This can make them more difficult for people to spot and identify what’s happening. It can also make it easier for people to hide their symptoms if they are embarrassed about reaching out for help.
Some of these symptoms include:
- Flashbacks or reliving traumatic events
- Difficulty concentrating
- Not remembering specific details of events
- Increased feelings of anger and possibly outbursts
- Increased fear and anxiety
- Feeling detached or withdrawn from loved ones.
- Lack of interest in activities that you used to enjoy
As mentioned before, PTSD is an anxiety disorder, so it can come to the symptoms of other anxiety disorders. When left untreated, PTSD can lead to depression. This is why it’s important to learn to identify and address the symptoms.
If you’re living with symptoms of PTSD, it’s important to reach out for help. PTSD can impact every area of your life, but it’s a treatable mental health challenge. You can learn strategies to cope with the anxiety and symptoms that it causes.
Led by Veteran’s Affairs, the National Center for PTSD has many resources for people struggling with the effects of PTSD, and it’s not only for veterans. This can be a place to start exploring options.
Treatment for PTSD can consist of both medication and forms of therapy. The medications prescribed tend to be anti-anxiety medications and sometimes prescriptions to helping with sleep and nightmares so you can get more rest.
When it comes to therapy, the options that tend to be used most often include exposure therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). However, there are different combinations that can be used to help address your specific symptoms. You can explore therapy options in person, and some forms of therapy can be provided through virtual options such as those offered by therapists at BetterHelp.
If you recognize symptoms that you believe could be related to PTSD, your first step to treating the condition is to reach out for help. Speaking to your doctor can help you determine what the right steps for treatment are for your condition.