Living with Chronic Pain

What Is Medical Trauma?


Trauma can occur in response to a disturbing situation. Medical trauma involves negative psychological and physiological reactions when experiencing an illness or injury. It can develop following a particularly painful, invasive, or distressing illness or injury. Trauma can also be experienced due to improper medical treatment, dismissive physicians, malpractice, discrimination, abuse, etc. Treatment for medical trauma can be challenging, especially when medical care is needed.


Post-traumatic stress disorder and medical trauma have similar symptoms since they are both associated with trauma. Symptoms of medical trauma include but are not limited to the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Intense emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Digestive issues
  • Heightened state of alertness
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Muscle tension
  • Fearfulness


Medical trauma is subjective and can occur due to various conditions or diagnoses. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Illness or injury. Medical trauma is very common among cancer patients due to the difficulties that the illness and treatment present. Similarly, one out of every eight heart attack survivors develop PTSD as a result of their experience. Illnesses or injuries can also result in admittance to an intensive care unit (ICU), which can cause individuals to be traumatized and dwell on their mortality. Other examples include COVID-19, strokes, chronic pain, vehicle accidents, etc.
  • Birthing. Giving birth can be highly traumatic for new parents, especially those who have experienced sexual abuse. An estimated 45 percent of new parents report trauma surrounding the birthing experience. Common reasons for birth-related trauma include obstetric violence, emergency C-section, or having an infant placed in the NICU.
  • Medical events. Medical trauma can happen as a result of any diagnosis or procedure. Since each person responds to their environment differently, they have a different outcome when receiving a diagnosis or having a procedure. Factors, such as emotional state, environment, and treatment, impact whether a person develops trauma as a result. Examples of medical trauma due to a diagnosis or procedure includes dialysis, surgery, life-threatening diagnosis, health complications, intubation, chemotherapy, etc.
  • Mistreatment. Medical trauma can also result from mistreatment in a medical setting. This could include discrimination, not treated seriously, sexual assault, forced treatment, withholding of a diagnosis or treatment option, or unethical medical practicing. Mistreatment also includes health care professionals being inattentive, insensitive, poor communicators, evasive, etc.
  • Discrimination. Certain minority groups may experience medical trauma for various reasons. Throughout history, black people have been used as test subjects against their will or without their knowledge, causing medical settings to be intimidating. Additionally, people of color are often sent to inferior medical facilities. Forced sterilization is sometimes forced on disabled individuals. Judges, family members, or guardians can make the decision of sterilizing a disabled person in many locations.

Risk factors

Although medical trauma can affect anyone, certain situations increase the risk of developing it. They include the following:

  • History of anxiety, trauma, PTSD, or other mental health conditions
  • High stress levels
  • Women
  • People of color
  • Children

Additional Sources: National Women’s Law Center and Verywell Mind

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