Living with Chronic Pain

What to Do When Medical Trauma Interferes With Current Medical Care


Medical trauma is an emotional response to a serious event involving medical care. For example, medical trauma can develop after an unpleasant treatment, painful procedure, or hospitalization in the intensive care unit. Medical trauma can also occur when an error is made, such as when the wrong medication is prescribed or when a surgical mistake leads to a complication.

Medical trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that develops due to medical care may lead to postponing or even avoiding necessary medical treatments. This can negatively impact mental and physical well-being.

Six steps to take when medical trauma interferes with current medical care are listed below:

1. Consider appointment times. If sitting in a waiting room for a long period of time leads to anxiety, scheduling the first appointment of the day is a good idea as it may minimize wait times. If stress builds up throughout the week, scheduling an appointment for a Monday rather than a Friday may help. Choosing the least stressful time of the week can make it easier to keep an appointment and receive necessary treatment.

2. Involve a family member or friend. Telling a family member or friend about an upcoming medical appointment helps maintain accountability. Asking a trusted family member or friend to attend the treatment or appointment can also provide distraction and reduce stress. It also helps to have another person present to help retain important information and ask questions.

3. Be honest with medical professionals about medical trauma. Letting medical professionals know about medical trauma can help them adjust care and make treatment easier. Asking them to describe treatments in detail can also be beneficial.

4. Try relaxation or breathing techniques. Before and during appointments or treatments, relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can help reduce anxiety.

5. Be willing to ask for help. It is normal to experience stress, sleep issues, and other PTSD symptoms after a serious medical procedure or event, but if the symptoms are severe or last longer than a month, the help of a mental health professional may be necessary. Some techniques that can be effective in treating medical trauma include the following:

  • Exposure therapy involves working with a therapist to gradually expose oneself to a feared place or experience in order to lessen anxiety.
  • Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) involves discussing a traumatic event with a therapist while paying attention to a movement or sound in order to help change the emotional response.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves working with a trained therapist to identify and change certain thoughts and behaviors.

6. Seek a new doctor if necessary. If medical trauma has created a negative relationship with a particular medical professional, seeking care elsewhere may be the best solution. A positive relationship with a medical professional makes it easier to seek and receive necessary medical treatment.

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