PTSD in the inpatient setting


Dr. Brian Kwan, associate professor of health science at University of California San Diego, and a hospitalist.

Dr. Brian Kwan

Patients with PTSD may feel a loss of control or helplessness when admitted to the inpatient setting. For example, they cannot control when they receive their medications or when they get their meals. The act of showering or going outside requires approval. In addition, they might perceive they are being “ordered around” by staff and may be carted off to a study without knowing why the study is being done in the first place.

Triggers in the hospital environment may contribute to PTSD flares. Think about the loud, beeping IV pump that constantly goes off at random intervals, disrupting sleep. What about a blood draw in the early morning where the phlebotomist sticks a needle into the arm of a sleeping patient? Or the well-intentioned provider doing prerounds who wakes a sleeping patient with a shake of the shoulder or some other form of physical touch? The multidisciplinary team crowding around their hospital bed? For a patient suffering from PTSD, any of these could easily set off a cascade of escalating symptoms.

Knowing that these triggers exist, can anything be done to ameliorate their effects? We propose some practical suggestions for improving the hospital experience for patients with PTSD.

Strategies to combat PTSD in the inpatient setting

Perhaps the most practical place to start is with preserving sleep in hospitalized patients with PTSD. The majority of patients with PTSD have sleep disturbances, and interrupted sleep routines in these patients can exacerbate nightmares and underlying psychiatric issues.5 Therefore, we should strive to avoid unnecessary awakenings.

While this principle holds true for all hospitalized patients, it must be especially prioritized in patients with PTSD. Ask yourself these questions during your next admission: Must intravenous fluids run 24 hours a day, or could they be stopped at 6 p.m.? Are vital signs needed overnight? Could the last dose of furosemide occur at 4 p.m. to avoid nocturia?

Dr. Scott Steinbach, chief of hospital medicine, Atlanta VAMC, and assistant professor of medicine, division of hospital medicine, Emory University, Atlanta

Dr. Scott Steinbach

Another strategy involves bedtime routines. Many of these patients may already follow a home sleep routine as part of their chronic PTSD management. To honor these habits in the hospital might mean that staff encourage turning the lights and the television off at a designated time. Additionally, the literature suggests music therapy can have a significant impact on enhanced sleep quality. When available, music therapy may reduce insomnia and decrease the amount of time prior to falling asleep.6

Other methods to counteract PTSD fall under the general principle of “trauma-informed care.” Trauma-informed care comprises practices promoting a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing.7 It is a mindful and sensitive approach that acknowledges the pervasive nature of trauma exposure, the reality of ongoing adverse effects in trauma survivors, and the fact that recovery is highly personal and complex.8

By definition, patients with PTSD have endured some traumatic event. Therefore, ideal care teams will ask patients about things that may trigger their anxiety and then work to mitigate them. For example, some patients with PTSD have a severe startle response when woken up by someone touching them. When patients feel that they can share their concerns with their care team and their team honors that observation by waking them in a different way, trust and control may be gained. This process of asking for patient guidance and adjusting accordingly is consistent with a trauma-informed care approach.9 A true trauma-informed care approach involves the entire practice environment but examining and adjusting our own behavior and assumptions are good places to start.

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