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How does PTSD affect you physically?

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. People with PTSD experience symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. These symptoms can be very distressing and disrupt daily life.

How common is PTSD?

PTSD is fairly common. About 3.5% of U.S. adults have PTSD in a given year. Rates are higher in certain populations, like military veterans and survivors of sexual violence. Up to 30% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. And around 30% of women who have been raped develop PTSD sometime during their lives.

What are the physical symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD does not just affect mental health. It also causes physical symptoms and changes in the body. This is because long-term stress and anxiety activate the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response. This reaction prepares the body to face danger by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones like cortisol.

While this can be helpful in the moment, chronic activation of the fight-or-flight response strains the body. Over weeks and months, it can lead to a wide range of physical problems. Common physical symptoms of PTSD include:

Chronic pain

Studies show that over half of people with PTSD also have chronic pain in areas like the back, joints, pelvis, and muscles. PTSD hyperactivates the sympathetic nervous system, which can increase muscle tension and pain sensitivity over time. Chronic pain is especially common in military veterans with PTSD.

Gastrointestinal issues

Many people with PTSD experience gastrointestinal distress like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Research indicates PTSD may alter communication between the brain and gut, causing inflammation that contributes to GI issues.


Both tension headaches and migraines are more common among those with PTSD. Like chronic pain, this may be due to long-term overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and increased sensitivity to pain signals. Headaches are one of the most frequently reported physical symptoms in people with PTSD.

Insomnia and nightmares

It is very common for PTSD sufferers to have major sleep problems like insomnia, frequent nightmares, and restless sleep. This prevents the body from fully healing and restoring itself at night. Lack of quality sleep has many detrimental effects, both mental and physical.

Fatigue and low energy

The combination of sleep disturbances, chronic stress responses, and poor physical health leave many people with PTSD feeling fatigued or low on energy. Exhaustion makes it even harder to cope with symptoms of PTSD.

Sexual dysfunction

PTSD can contribute to decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and problems with arousal or orgasm. This is likely due to the effects of anxiety and depression, as well as alterations in hormone levels. Sexual side effects impact both men and women with PTSD.

Weight and appetite changes

Some people with PTSD lose their appetite and lose weight. Others overeat and gain weight due to increased cortisol levels and changes in metabolism. Weight fluctuations are another physical sign that PTSD is straining the body.

Weakened immune system

Chronic stress from PTSD may suppress the immune system, making sufferers more prone to frequent colds and infections. It also increases inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein. Inflammation is the root of many diseases and may explain PTSD’s links to conditions like autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.

How does PTSD increase the risk of other health conditions?

In addition to acute physical symptoms, PTSD sufferers have higher rates of many long-term medical conditions:

Condition PTSD Link
Heart disease PTSD nearly doubles the risk of coronary heart disease. It also increases the risk of heart attacks.
Asthma Asthma is more common among those with PTSD.
Lung disease Studies link PTSD with increased rates of lung disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Liver disease PTSD increases the risk for liver disease, especially among those with alcohol use disorder.
Autoimmune diseases There are strong associations between PTSD and conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and thyroid diseases.
Chronic fatigue syndrome Many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome also have PTSD.

These increased risks may be due to the effects of stress on inflammation, hormones, and metabolism. PTSD sufferers are also more likely to smoke, use alcohol and drugs, and become sedentary – behaviors that compound damage to the body.

Some medications used for PTSD, like certain antidepressants, can also cause side effects like weight gain and digestive issues.

Does PTSD treatment help physical symptoms?

Since PTSD and physical health are so intertwined, treating PTSD often improves physical symptoms as well. Many patients find that their headaches, back pain, fatigue, or gastrointestinal problems get better as their PTSD improves.

Getting PTSD under control reduces chronic stress responses and anxiety, allowing the body to start healing. It also helps sufferers cut back on unhealthy coping behaviors like drinking or drug use.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy for PTSD can teach effective stress management techniques. Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also help relieve both mental and physical symptoms.

Making positive lifestyle changes like eating well, exercising, and getting quality sleep is another essential part of the healing process. Building social support and community connections is also beneficial.

Healing from PTSD takes time, but physical relief is often one of the first positive changes that patients notice. The body and mind are deeply connected, so treating mental health almost always translates to better physical health as well.


PTSD profoundly impacts both mental and physical well-being. The chronic stress it causes can wear down the body, causing pain, inflammatory conditions, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, and susceptibility to illness.

Healing from PTSD starts with evidence-based treatments and lifestyle changes to manage stress and anxiety. While PTSD feels very isolating, patients do not have to endure its toll on the body alone. Various forms of therapy, medication, community support, and self-care can all help reverse the physical damage from PTSD and put sufferers on the road to recovery.