With a growing body of research pointing to stress and depression causing premature birth, it is not too surprising that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is beginning to be implicated as well. The findings of the Stanford University study revealed that PTSD is not only a risk factor for preterm delivery, but accounts for almost half of the 12 percent of premature births in the country. PTSD affects over five million people in the U.S. every year.
For the study, the research team analyzed over 16,000 birth deliveries made from veterans at the Veterans Health Administration from 2000 to 2012. Out of the test sample, they found that over 3,000 infants were born to women with PTSD diagnoses, with almost 2,000 of those births being “active,” or diagnosed within the previous year. The authors believe that this time frame is the most dangerous for pregnancy, finding that having PTSD in the year prior to delivery increased a woman’s risk of premature delivery by nearly 35 percent.
The investigators looked at a series of possible confounding factors to control for, such as old age, carrying twins and race. They also controlled for various maternal health problems that could be causing premature birth (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma) as well as possible sources of trauma, mental health disorders other than PTSD and substance abuse in the female test group. However, the authors found that these factors had little impact on the risk for premature birth.
Premature babies are more likely to die in infancy than full-term ones. Considering that the rates of spontaneous early labor and its consequences (which include longer hospitalizations and developmental delays in eyesight, hearing or breathing) have stayed consistent over the last fifty years, the authors suggest that mothers with PTSD should be treated as high-risk pregnancies.
“Spontaneous preterm labor has been an intractable problem. The mechanism is biologic; stress is setting off biologic pathways that are inducing preterm labor. It’s not the other psychiatric conditions or risky behaviors that are driving it. This makes us hopeful that if you treat a mother who has active PTSD early in her pregnancy, her stress level could be reduced, and the risk of giving birth prematurely might go down,” said Ciaran Phibbs, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of pediatrics at March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University.
A temporary risk window
Peculiarly, the authors found that if a woman had been diagnosed with PTSD in the past, but did not experience the disorder in the year prior to giving birth, her risk of an early delivery was no higher than that for women without PTSD. This grace period strongly suggests that the intense anxiety symptoms of PTSD have a lasting physiological effect for at least 12 months that impacts the developmental processes of the infant.
The Veterans Administration has already incorporated the study’s findings into its care for pregnant women by instructing their staff to treat pregnancies among women with recent PTSD as high-risk. Although PTSD is more prevalent in veterans than the general population, a large number of civilians develop the disorder from other life threatening and assault related traumas. Half of the female PTSD veterans in the test sample had not seen combat, which speaks volumes as to the prevalence of cases caused by trauma in non-military situations.
Sovereign’s Chandler, Ariz. center specializes in dual diagnosis treatment for women who have suffered from trauma in the past, offering trauma-centric approaches to psychotherapy such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and brief strategic therapy. If you would like to learn more about our Arizona-based women’s treatment center or our holistic approach to trauma treatment, feel free to contact us at 866-598-5661 today.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer
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