May 21st, 2009
10:30 AM ET

Can PTSD be cured?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Margaret, via comment on the Paging Dr. Gupta blog

“Do PTSD symptoms ever really go away?”


Margaret, thank you for your question. Last week, I sat down with my producer and a flip cam and she started asking me questions about my time in Iraq. I hadn’t prepared for it at all, but the memories came flooding back. There was a hat that I used to wear during my 12 weeks out there. It was a camouflage wide brimmed hat, that was particularly effective for shielding me from the Iraqi desert sun. I brought that hat home, and hadn’t thought about it for a year until one day my wife and I were planning a hike. I pulled out the hat and put it on at the beginning of the trail. Inexplicably, I started to sweat, developed a pit in my stomach and almost threw up. At first, I thought it was something I ate, until I realized it was the smell and feel of that hat that immediately propelled me back to the battlefield. I had found a trigger. And, keep in mind, I was only there for three months, as compared to military personnel that have been on the battlefield for years.

As I researched this I learned the answer to your question. The symptoms of PTSD really never go away. Here is why: There is a profound psychological and physiological reaction to something traumatic. That traumatic event can’t be completely undone, though it can be diminished in the mind. Some of the symptoms include flashbacks, like I had. You may also have frightening thoughts, emotional numbness and depression. Many people will have problems sleeping, concentrating and will experience angry outbursts, to name a few.

The key to your question, I think, is to create a situation where someone who has persistent PTSD is still able to function normally. There are good treatments available, from counseling to immersion therapy. On an individual level, though, maintaining strong relationships with people who support you – they are often the first to notice the signs of PTSD – is very important. Also, talking to people who went through the same or similar experiences can be cathartic. And finally, try and remove things that trigger those memories. For my part, I threw away that hat.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.