What is Medical Trauma?

Boy looking out a window

Medical trauma refers to a patient’s psychological and physiological response to a negative or traumatic experience that occurs in a medical setting such as a doctor’s office, dentist’s office, or hospital. These experiences can involve a traumatic illness, injury, pain, or any type of invasive or frightening procedure. In short, medical trauma can result from any distressing or dismissive medical treatment.  

Just like other types of trauma, medical trauma can deeply impact a person both mentally and physically for years after the trauma originally occurred. Even when our minds don’t specifically remember or recognize the trauma, our bodies do and it can lead to anxiety disorders such has PTSD or phobias.   

When we experience a traumatic event – whether in a medical setting or not – our body absorbs a large amount of sensory information all at once. It takes in what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and even tasting at the time the event occurs.   

This information gets stored away in our body and, although the traumatic event itself may have passed, “when we encounter another situation with similar sensory information (like a certain smell or sound) it can cause our alarm bells to go off.” At that point, our nervous system responds in one of four ways: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.   

These four responses are designed to protect us, and typically benefit us in the short term because they do exactly that. However, if a traumatic experience goes unhealed and our nervous system remains activated for a prolonged period of time, it begins to take a toll on both our brain and our body.    

Medical Trauma Symptoms  

While medical trauma can show up differently in every person, some common settings and experiences that can trigger medical trauma distress includes medical or dental offices, hospitals, ambulances, or even environments with upsetting stimuli like bright lights, being touched, or encountering specific scents (like the scent of disinfectant).  

The symptoms of medical trauma often look similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder and can include:  

  • Anxiety  
  • Numbness  
  • Dissociation  
  • Digestive issues  
  • Intrusive thoughts, images, or nightmares  
  • Sleep disturbances   
  • Avoidance of stimuli such as doctors, medical offices, dentists, etc.   
  • More or less sensitivity to surroundings than usual  
  • Phobias such as fear of needles, gynecological exams, hospitals or others  

Examples Of Medical Trauma

Each person’s experience with medical trauma is largely unique and can occur as a result of a variety of factors including severe pain, feelings of helplessness or lack of control over one’s own body, medical negligence, a provider’s lack of understanding or empathy, or any unexpected or unforeseen circumstances.  

Some circumstances that are often associated with medical trauma include:  

  • Giving birth (ex: emergency c-section, obstetric violence, infant in the newborn intensive care unit, etc.)  
  • Cancer  
  • Having a heart attack or stroke  
  • Being on dialysis  
  • Undergoing surgery  
  • Being hospitalized for a medical condition  
  • Being intubated  
  • Staying in the intensive care unit  
  • Receiving poor treatment   
  • Covid-19  
  • Waking from anesthesia during surgery 
  • Being separated from a primary support person (such as a parent) due to a procedure, hospitalization, or illness  

Who Experiences Medical Trauma?  

While anyone can experience medical trauma, there are groups of people that are at much greater risk.  

Medical Trauma in BIPOC Communities  

Due to large disparities in treatment that exist within the healthcare system, BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color ) are disproportionately impacted by medical trauma.   

For example, black women experience birth trauma at nearly double the rate of white women.  Additionally, black people are more likely to die from most cancers and to live the shortest amount of time after a cancer diagnosis than any other racial/ethnic group.

A particularly alarming example of this is that despite being less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, black women are  41% more likely   than white women to die from it.  

These racial disparities are largely due to decades of structural racism contributing to drastic inequalities in access to care and the disparate availability or quality of care provided. As a result, black people are:

  • More likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage disease, which is usually more costly and difficult to treat  
  • More likely to experience delays in treatment  
  • Less likely to receive recommended treatment  

Medical Trauma In Older Generations  

“Medical trauma can also have a lot to do with a person’s age,” shares Orange County Health Psychologist Dr. Kristin Kleppe. “Over the years I continue to hear more and more stories from older individuals that were traumatized as children by procedures that were extremely frightening, painful, or invasive. For example, we think of a tonsillectomy as a fairly simple procedure that’s almost a rite of passage for children that includes lots of ice cream and pampering. But, years ago, a tonsillectomy could be very frightening to a child. Anesthesia included a big black scary mask for ether, being physically restrained, and separation from Mom and Dad for long periods of time.  

Not only did many outdated medical treatments cause greater physical distress, there were also a variety of practices, laws, and beliefs that deeply impacted an individual’s ability to receive quality medical care.  

Some specific examples of this include:  

  • Hospitals requiring a husband’s signature (or in other words, permission) for his wife to be able to receive life-saving care such as a hysterectomy   
  • Hospitals limiting visiting hours for children leaving them separated from parents or caregivers for extended periods of time leading to emotional distress and fear of abandonment  

Other Groups At Higher Risk For Medical Trauma  

Some other groups of people that are more likely to experience medical trauma include individuals on the autism spectrum (due to tactile and sensory differences that can make treatment more distressing), women, individuals with a history of anxiety, trauma, or abuse, and individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+.  

Trauma Treatment In Orange County  

Getting support from a licensed therapist  can be a great way to process traumatic experiences and find relief from the symptoms associated with them.   

At Orange County Health Psychologists we provide various kinds of treatment for trauma including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), an evidence-based treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. We also offer Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) for medical phobias such as a fear of needles.  

For more information on treatment for Medical Trauma, or to schedule an appointment, contact Orange County Health Psychologists by calling 949.528.6300 or emailing info@OCHealthPsych.com. 

-Written by Cassie Cipolla for Orange County Health Psychologists