Women who undergo fertility treatments may find the situation so distressing that they develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a new study says.
In the study, close to 50 percent of participants met the official criteria for PTSD, meaning they could be diagnosed with the condition.
That's about six times higher than the percentage of people in the general population who suffer from PTSD (8 percent.)
The findings suggest the definition of PTSD may need to be changed so that its causes include potentially traumatic experiences such as infertility, said study researcher Allyson Bradow, director of psychological services at Home of the Innocents, a nonprofit organization that helps families in need in Louisville, Ky.
Currently, the definition of PTSD says people must have experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event, or event that could cause serious injury.
"The definition of trauma should be expanded to include expectations of life," said Bradow, who went through fertility treatments herself, and conducted the study as a doctoral student at Spalding University in Louisville. "Having children, expanding your family, carrying on your genetic code — that's an instinctual drive that we have as human beings. And when that is being threatened, it's not necessarily your life being threatened, but your expectation of what your life can be or should be like," she said.
The finding also shows that a greater effort should be made to counsel those who go through fertility treatments, to help them cope with the emotional and psychological effects of the experience, Bradow said.
Coping with infertility
Bradow had her first child without any trouble at age 26. But when she and her husband tried to conceive a second child several years later, they were not able to. The couple was diagnosed with secondary infertility, which refers to infertility experienced after a couple has a child.
"The general diagnosis of infertility, or not being able to have a baby, is kind of this giant earthquake that rocks your world. And then, there's all the aftershocks," of fertility testing and treatment, Bradow said.
Bradow said the symptoms she experienced during fertility treatment went beyond those of depression and grief, conditions previously linked to fertility treatment. Others she spoke with felt the same.
To find out how widespread these feelings were, Bradow and colleagues surveyed 142 people who had undergone fertility treatments, and who visited online support groups for infertility. Survey participants — 97 percent of whom were women — completed an online survey to assess their symptoms of PTSD. They were asked to consider their infertility diagnosis and fertility treatment as their traumatic event.
About a third of participants had been trying to conceive for one to two years, and about 60 percent had undergone fertility treatments for more than a year.
Overall, 46 percent met the criteria for PTSD. Among this group, 75 to 80 percent said they felt upset at reminders of their infertility, such as seeing commercials for baby diapers. Other common symptoms included feeling distant or cut off from people, or feeling irritable. Many also said they felt hopeless, and had changes in their personality.
Need for counseling
During her treatment, Bradow said no one mentioned anything about how it would affect her emotionally or psychologically.
"They're focused on getting you pregnant…and that's their job," Bradow said. "But we also have to consider the psychological impact of what happens when you're getting medical interventions for this," Bradow said. She eventually became pregnant again, through artificial insemination, and had her second daughter at age 31.
Ideally, Bradow said, mental health counseling should be a required part of fertility treatment. However, this may be a long way off, partly because fertility treatment is not usually covered by health insurance, and doctors may be reluctant to give their clients an extra cost, Bradow said.
Bradow presented her findings last week at the American Psychological Association meeting in Orlando, Fla.
Pass it on: Many women who go through fertility treatments experience symptoms of PTSD.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.