One in three women suffers symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after giving birth, new research today reveals.
While the condition is well known in individuals who have experienced massive trauma, such as terror attacks, war or car accidents, it seems childbirth can have the same distressing effects.
According to the study from Tel Aviv University, around one third of all post-partum women show symptoms of PTSD. Some even go on to develop full-blown PTSD following the “ordeal of labour”.
Of those who suffer most with the psychological after-effects of birth, 80 per cent were found to have chosen a natural birth without pain relief.
Other factors increasing the risk of PTSD were whether the woman felt discomfort about her body, such as being exposed during birth, how fearful she felt during labour and any complications that may have arisen in the present and previous pregnancies and labours.
PTSD is defined as an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful or frightening events. Its symptoms can include nightmares and flashbacks, as well as feelings of isolation and numbness, guilt, depression and extreme irritability.
Lead researcher Professor Rael Strous said that although childbirth may not be a sudden and unexpected event, it can be accompanied by a “very real and justified fear of danger, as expectant mothers worry for not just their own safety but also for the health and well-being of their babies”.
The study, while relatively small – 89 women were interviewed within two to five days after delivery and again one month after delivery – raises important questions, said Prof Strous.
Among these are the issues of pain relief during labour and support for the mother afterwards.
Prof Strous said: "The less pain relief there was, the higher the woman's chances of developing post-partum PTSD.”
He said doctors should become familiar with the profile of women who are more disposed to suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, and to look for warning signs after labour. Other measures include better counselling about pain relief and making sure that patients' bodies are properly covered during delivery.
"Dignity is a factor that should be taken into account. It's an issue of ethics and professionalism, and now we can see that it does have physical and psychological ramifications," he said.
He also said there is a need for research into better treatment plans and making more resources available for affected women.
Of the women surveyed, 25.9 per cent displayed clear symptoms of PTSD, while 3.4 per cent went on to exhibit symptoms of full-blown PTSD. These women suffered flashbacks of their labour, the avoidance of discussion of the event, heart palpitations during discussions and a reluctance to consider having another child.
As many as 80 per cent of the PTSD group confessed to feeling discomfort with being unclothed, and 67 per cent had previous pregnancies that they described as traumatic.
Surprisingly, the study found that support during labour, in the form of a midwife or doula, had no impact when it came to avoiding post-traumatic symptoms, nor did socio-economic factors, marital status, education or religion.
The Birth Trauma Association says around 10,000 women a year develop PTSD in the U.K., and up to 200,000 more may develop symptoms of the disorder.