We don’t talk about medical trauma all that often. But for many, trauma at the hands of healthcare professionals is real — and knowing how to heal matters.
Sometimes trauma occurs in situations that are easy to recognize, like natural disasters or abusive relationships. Other times, it happens in places we go to get better, like hospitals, doctor’s offices, and urgent care facilities.
What happens when those who are supposed to help you at your most vulnerable cause trauma instead?
For people who’ve experienced some form of medical trauma — including myself — it can bring up a lot of conflicting feelings.
In my case, it’s likely the medical professionals were just trying to do their jobs. But to the 3-year-old version of me, the lifesaving procedure I underwent was a violating and confusing experience I ended up carrying with me for years.
The umbrella of medical trauma is broad. That means people who’ve experienced it will have many different stories and perspectives.
For example, any life-threatening illness could cause medical trauma. And in the United States alone, millions of people survive cancer, heart attacks, and strokes each year.
Medical trauma can affect anyone, and for many different reasons. And while the impacts of the trauma can be long-lasting, many care approaches offer relief and healing.
When people talk about medical trauma, they might use the phrase “medical PTSD.” There are differences between these terms:
- Medical PTSD. This refers to symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) originating from trauma in a medical setting.
- Medical trauma. This is trauma that occurs in a medical setting. While not an official diagnosis itself, medical trauma can lead to conditions like PTSD, anxiety, depression, or chronic pain.
If you’re in therapy and wondering which phrase might fit you best, this difference might matter: PTSD is an actual diagnosis and medical trauma is used more broadly.
There’s still a lot of overlap, and using one term or the other to describe yourself doesn’t mean your experience was any “easier” or “harder” than anyone else’s.
It’s important to note that trauma is subjective. This means that if you experienced an event as traumatic, then you’ve experienced trauma. No one else gets to decide whether you’ve experienced trauma, because they’re not you.
This also makes trauma — particularly medical trauma — complex. When you’re trying to heal, your care approach is going to look vastly different from someone else’s because you’ll have different reactions, experiences, and triggers.
Because medical trauma is something not many people talk about or acknowledge, some experts refer to it as disenfranchised trauma. Disenfranchised, or unacknowledged, trauma can be tricky because people might not understand it or take it seriously.
In a medical system that’s often trained to treat only physical symptoms, emotions can get left out of the equation. Someone may be dealing with complex emotions after a medical procedure, but they’re usually sent home without any further care once they’re able to take care of themselves physically.
So, what can medical trauma look like?
If you’ve experienced medical trauma, you might show physical and emotional signs. These signs can show up in specific situations that remind your body of the original trauma.
My therapist once explained it to me like this: When we go through trauma, our senses are still taking in a lot of information — even if we don’t realize it at the time. But after the trauma, our bodies remember. We’ve stored away the sensory information we took in during the traumatic event.
When we encounter another situation with similar sensory information (like a certain smell or sound) it causes our alarm bells to go off. The body says, “We’re in danger. It’s time to lock down!” And that’s when your body might freeze or flinch.
While many settings and experiences can trigger stress for people with medical trauma, some common ones are:
- doctor’s offices
- dentist’s offices
- places with bright lights
- being touched
- specific scents, like the scent of disinfectant
Some symptoms and signs of medical trauma
- panic attacks
- feelings of rage or shame
- substance use
- eating disorders
- compulsive behaviors like exercising or working all the time
- more or less sensitivity to surroundings than usual
- sleep problems
- gastrointestinal issues, like nausea or indigestion
- skin rashes
- chronic pain
People experience medical trauma for many different reasons. While it’s impossible to list them all, your own experience will likely inform which settings currently cause you to experience symptoms (and what kind of symptoms you have).
Sometimes medical trauma results from negligence. Other times, it comes from a lack of understanding or even a lack of empathy. It can even occur when there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent the traumatic event.
Some experiences that might lead to medical trauma include:
- being on dialysis
- giving birth or having a cesarean delivery
- being intubated
- experiencing cancer
- being hospitalized for a medical condition
- undergoing surgery
- having health complications as a child
- having a heart attack or stroke
- living with chronic pain or medically unexplained symptoms
Whether your visit to the hospital was planned or unplanned, trauma can still occur.
For example, almost 1 in 3 births in the United States is through cesarean delivery, and most of these were by necessity, not choice. This means many births involve an unplanned invasive surgery.
When it comes to how medical trauma happens, the answer also varies. Here are a few examples:
- A medical professional ignored you when you said you were in pain.
- You received a lower standard of care due to your race or ethnicity.
- A medical professional didn’t take concerns about your symptoms seriously.
- No one told you what to expect before undergoing a medical procedure.
- Your wishes weren’t respected in the operating room.
- You were separated from your primary support person, like a partner or family member, during your procedure.
Carrying trauma as a result of a medical procedure can leave you in the same place as many other trauma survivors — trying to manage symptoms that make it harder to live the way you want.
It isn’t easy, but it is possible to heal from these experiences.
If you carry trauma, you’ll probably know that its effects can be physical and mental. For example, you might experience pain or tension along with anxiety and nightmares. When it comes to healing, it can help to make sure that your treatment takes your full range of symptoms into account.
Working with a mental health professional is one way to manage trauma. Some common forms of trauma therapy include:
- Somatic therapy. Somatic therapies, like somatic experiencing, take a body-based approach to healing trauma. If you have a difficult time talking about your experience, this therapy could be especially helpful since you won’t be required to talk about it (although you can).
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This form of therapy uses specific eye movements or other repetitive movements to help you reprocess traumatic memories.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Trauma-focused CBT in particular has been
shownto help reduce PTSD symptoms.
If you want a deeper dive on managing the effects of trauma, this article is a good place to start.
For many people planning to get some kind of medical care — whether it’s a routine procedure or a surgery — bringing in an ally can help mitigate some potential trauma.
Clinical social worker Ellie Somers, MSW, LCSW-C shares that it often becomes necessary for a friend or family member to act as an advocate in hospital settings when their loved one isn’t in a position to advocate for themselves.
In addition, Somers explains, “Some medical settings have people in place specifically to advocate for patients. For example, if [you’re] in a hospital you can ask to speak with the social worker or nurse case manager, who can assist with articulating your concerns in ways that might be better received by the clinicians.”
Somers also adds that some hospitals have an internal ombudsman — that is, a professional advocate who’s there to make sure your needs are being met.
Even if you know you’ll technically be able to speak up for yourself the entire time, it can help to bring an ally with you as back up.
A medical ally might be someone who’s well-versed in your needs and wishes, and may be able to act as a buffer between you and a healthcare professional if your needs aren’t being respected.
Living with the effects of medical trauma can make you feel foggy, tired, dissociated, and a whole host of other feelings. Depending on the circumstances of your trauma, you might also be carrying grief, anger, or other intense emotions.
Healing isn’t a linear process, but it is possible with time and patience. If you think you’ve experienced medical trauma and want more info, the below resources are a good place to start.
- International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies: Fact Sheet for Medical Trauma Survivors
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Medical Trauma in Children
- Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth: Resources