PTSD Increases Risk for Premature Birth
Compared to men, women have unusually high odds of developing PTSD in the aftermath of exposure to a dangerous, potentially life-threatening situation or event. In their lifetimes, roughly half (51 percent) of all American women will be exposed to an event or situation linked to the subsequent development of post-traumatic stress disorder, the federal National Center for PTSD reports. (Such events and situations include adult exposure to physical or sexual assault, a childhood history of exposure to physical or sexual abuse, exposure to a live combat zone, exposure to a hurricane or other natural disaster and exposure to a major accident.) In turn, approximately 20 percent of women exposed to a potential cause of PTSD will develop diagnosable symptoms of the illness.
Men have a somewhat higher rate of exposure to potential PTSD causes; despite this fact, exposed men develop the disorder less than half as often as exposed women (8 percent vs. 20 percent). Several factors may at least partially account for the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in women. These factors include women’s relatively high rate of sexual assault victimization (one of the most likely precursors to PTSD) and a potential tendency among women to consider themselves personally responsible for their trauma exposure (a tendency not found as often among men).
Premature childbirth occurs whenever a child is born before reaching 37 weeks of gestation. Separate from any consideration of PTSD, factors linked to this phenomenon include getting pregnant at an unusually young or old age, having a lack of adequate financial resources, having hypertension while pregnant, using substances (including alcohol and nicotine/tobacco) during pregnancy, having a previous history of premature childbirth, failing to receive a baseline level of prenatal care, carrying multiple children and being African American. Health issues found in children born prematurely include unusual problems breathing or eating, hearing problems, unusually slow growth and development, poor eyesight and the onset of the group of conditions known collectively as cerebral palsy. Approximately 11 percent of all U.S. children are born prematurely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Complications related to premature birth stand as the single most common cause of infant death.
Does PTSD Increase the Risks?
In the study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs used a large-scale project involving female veterans of military service to gauge the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on the likelihood that a pregnant woman will give birth prematurely. All told, the women participating in this project gave birth 16,344 times between the years 2002 and 2012. Three thousand forty-nine of the newborn children had mothers diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lifetimes; 1,921 of these newborns had mothers diagnosed with the illness at some point shortly before getting pregnant or during pregnancy.
When the researchers compared the premature birth rate among the women recently diagnosed with PTSD to the rate of premature birth among the remainder of the study participants, they found that the recently PTSD-affected women had a roughly 35 percent higher chance of experiencing a spontaneous premature birth (a premature birth linked to the spontaneous onset of labor rather than a medical issue in the mother or child). Importantly, this conclusion held true even after the researchers accounted for other known risks for premature childbirth.
Altogether, the presence of recently diagnosed PTSD in pregnant women appears to increase the overall rate of premature childbirth by about 2 percent. The study’s authors note that the rate of premature birth is also higher than average among women diagnosed with PTSD more than a year before getting pregnant. However, the differences between these women and women unaffected by PTSD are not great enough to reach a level of statistical significance. Based on their findings, the authors believe that recent traumatic stress exposure triggers biological changes that promote the onset of premature, spontaneous labor in affected women.