Thousands of people who survive a serious illness or injury in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital are left with severe problems, some of which are so intense that they feel as though they are losing their minds.
Some people never recover.
The disorder has been called “post-intensive care syndrome”. It represents a variety of symptoms that come about after a traumatic experience in the ICU. Symptoms can include muscle weakness, cognitive dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
A study from April found that 25% of people who survive a stay in the ICU have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder anywhere from one to six months after being discharged from the hospital. This rate is the same as combat soldiers and rape victims.
While it would be expected that patients would be grateful to have their lives saved, they instead hit rock bottom, suffering from major severe depression with thoughts of suicide.
Estimates show that roughly 75% of ICU patients survive to be discharged from the hospital. Up to half of those surviving patients will experience post-ICU syndrome.
The disorder does not discriminate, as people of all ages and races are at equal risk. The problem is expected to become worse as the baby boomer generation continues to grow older.
Scientists are having a difficult time determining the causes of post-ICU syndrome. Some believe that it could be a dysfunction of the brain that came from the illness or injury itself.
However, others are arguing that the actions that take place in the ICU are to blame. Patients in the ICU frequently receive large amounts of sedative medicine, while also being placed in physical restraints. These techniques can lead some patients to believe that they are being tortured or imprisoned rather than being treated in a hospital.
The heavy use of sedative drugs causes the reality of the patients to become distorted. The patients leave the ICU believing that they have been stabbed or sexually assaulted.
Meanwhile, other patients have described instances of blood seeping from the walls, rats running around the room, and seeing children without faces.
In order to deal with the problem, doctors have been trying to use less sedatives. However, this has not necessarily helped. Now, instead of having delusional memories, patients often experience a total blackout, while still leaving completely traumatized.
There does not currently exist a standardized follow-up care for ICU patients. Many doctors find this troubling, believing that patients should have a network to turn to for post-recovery.
For now, doctors are doing everything they can to minimize the discomfort that patients experience in the ICU. But it’s clear that something needs to be done to help patients that are deeply traumatized from an ICU stay.