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Two new research studies focusing on the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on Australian defence personnel who have served overseas show that the physical impacts are as great as the psychological ones.

Yet this link is often unrecognised, or under-estimated, by health care professionals, they suggest.

Health problems found to be triggered by PTSD include loss of appetite, unintended weight gain, muscle aches and pains, breathlessness, obstructive sleep apnoea, unusual sleep behaviours and restless legs syndrome.

One study was conducted by a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies. The research examined data from 10,500 returned service personnel who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was found that nearly six per cent of PTSD sufferers experience concerning physical disorders.

The other study was supported by Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation and RSL Queensland. It looked to a much earlier conflict, the Vietnam war.

The number of veterans from this conflict suffering PTSD is said to greatly outnumber those on the books of the Department of Veterans Affairs who experience PTSD following service in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

This $6.5M research project, billed as a world first, focused on the health status of 300 Vietnam Vets. It examined and compared the occurrence and severity of PTSD-related psychological symptoms and physical illnesses, which included heart disease (four times greater risk of heart attack), gastric complaints, restless legs syndrome and sleep disorders.

Both studies found a significant number of veterans who experienced PTSD as a result of their wartime service face a level and mix of physical illness that matches, or even exceeds, their psychological damage.

One notable condition was obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a sleep disorder in which breathing stops periodically during sleep due to airway obstruction from relaxation of the tongue or airway muscles.

Common symptoms of OSA are snoring, waking up unrefreshed, daytime tiredness, slowed or stopped breathing during sleep, or waking up choking or gasping for air.

While many people with OSA are unaware they have it, they face a higher risk of serious health impacts such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, depression, impotence, and more.

Backers of the Queensland-based study have developed a national education program to equip GPs and other healthcare professionals with new strategies to better identify the signs and symptoms of PTSD. Details at here