Boston Bombing Worsens PTSD Symptoms

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BOSTON — As disturbing as April’s Boston Marathon bombing was for all Americans, Boston-area military veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were especially affected, experiencing flashbacks, unwanted memories and other psychological issues.

A new study led by researchers from the VA’s National Center for PTSD and Boston University School of Medicine, both in Boston, raises awareness of the effects that tragic events such as terror attacks and mass shootings have on those with PTSD and other preexisting psychological conditions. The report was published online recently by the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Study authors urge healthcare systems to be prepared in the future to treat not only the victims directly affected by such tragedies but also those indirectly affected because of past trauma exposure.

For the study, the researchers used data from an ongoing study of Boston-area veterans diagnosed with PTSD and conducted 71 telephone interviews within one week of the bombing. They compared symptom data collected from participants about two months before the bombing with results from the interview one week after the bombing.

Of those interviewed, 38% reported that they were emotionally distressed by the bombing and the subsequent lockdown of Boston and other communities. In addition, a majority of those interviewed reported that the bombing caused them to experience flashbacks and unwanted memories relating to their own past traumas.

“The effects felt by the veterans were likely due to thematic similarities between the marathon explosions and the veterans’ own traumatic combat experiences, especially for those deployed to recent conflicts characterized by attacks involving improvised explosive devices,” said principal investigator Mark Miller, PhD.

While the pre- and post-bombing data didn’t demonstrate a significant change in symptoms across the entire group, those who reported being personally affected demonstrated a strong correlation between distress at the time of the bombing and change in the severity of PTSD symptoms.

Study authors suggested this change was primarily attributable to increases in intrusion and avoidance symptoms.

“This study highlights the fact that tragic local and national events of this type can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of individuals already suffering with PTSD,” Miller explained. “It is crucial that relevant healthcare organizations understand this phenomenon and be prepared in the wake of tragedy to care not only for those who are directly impacted, but also for those with pre-existing psychological conditions, including our nation’s veterans with PTSD.”

1 Miller MW, Wolf EJ, Hein C, Prince L, Reardon AF. Psychological Effects of the Marathon Bombing on Boston-Area Veterans With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/jts.21865

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