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Original Research

Trauma Exposure and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Primary Care Patients: Cross-Sectional Criterion Standard Study

Bernd Löwe, MD, PhD; Kurt Kroenke, MD; Robert L. Spitzer, MD; Janet B. W. Williams, DSW; Monika Mussell, PhD; Matthias Rose, MD; Katja Wingenfeld, PhD; Nina Sauer, MD; and Carsten Spitzer, MD

Published: June 1, 2010

Article Abstract

Objective: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common but least recognized anxiety disorders in primary care. This study aimed to describe the association of PTSD and trauma exposure with somatic symptoms, psychiatric comorbidity, functional impairment, and the actual treatment of PTSD in primary care.

Method: This cross-sectional criterion standard study included 965 consecutive primary care patients from 15 civilian primary care clinics in the United States. The Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV (SCID) was used to establish diagnosis of PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Somatic symptoms, depression, and anxiety were measured with the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ), and functional impairment was measured with the Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form General Health Survey (SF-20). The study was conducted from November 2004 to June 2005.

Results: PTSD was diagnosed in 83 patients (8.6%; 95% CI, 7.0%-10.5%), and trauma exposure without fulfilling DSM-IV criteria for PTSD was reported by 169 patients (17.5%; 15.2%-20.0%). With odds ratios ranging between 2.1 (95% CI, 1.2-3.6) for headache and 9.7 (3.8-24.8) for chest pain, PTSD patients had markedly elevated somatic symptom rates compared to the reference group of patients with no PTSD or trauma exposure. PTSD was significantly associated with elevated rates of psychiatric comorbidity, pain, and impaired functioning. Patients reporting trauma but no PTSD had rates of somatic symptoms, psychiatric comorbidity, and functional impairment that were intermediate between PTSD and reference group patients. Adjusting for depression substantially attenuated the association of PTSD and trauma with somatic symptoms, suggesting that depression may be an important mediator of the PTSD-somatic symptoms relationship.

Conclusions: The high frequency of PTSD in primary care and its association with psychiatric comorbidity and functional impairment underscore the need to better detect and treat PTSD in primary care. Recognizing the frequent somatic presentation of PTSD and appreciating the salience of comorbid depression may be especially important in optimizing PTSD care.

J Clin Psychiatry

Submitted: April 7, 2009; accepted September 16, 2009.

Online ahead of print: June 1, 2010 (doi:10.4088/JCP.09m05290blu).

Corresponding author: Bernd Löwe, MD, PhD, Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University Medical Center, Hamburg-Eppendorf, Martinistrasse 52, 20246 Hamburg, Germany (

Volume: 71

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