REM sleep and the early development of posttraumatic stress disorder

Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Oct;159(10):1696-701. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.159.10.1696.


Objective: The potential for chronicity and treatment resistance once posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become established has stimulated interest in understanding the early pathogenesis of the disorder. Arousal regulation and memory consolidation appear to be important in determining the development of PTSD; both are functions of sleep. Sleep findings from patients with chronic PTSD are complex and somewhat contradictory, and data from the acute phase are quite limited. The aim of the present study was to obtain polysomnographic recordings during an acute period after life-threatening experiences and injury and to relate measures of sleep duration and maintenance and the timing, intensity, and continuity of REM sleep to the early development of PTSD.

Method: Twenty-one injured subjects meeting study criteria received at least one polysomnographic recording close to the time of medical/surgical stabilization and within a month of injury. PTSD symptoms were assessed concurrently and 6 weeks later. Sleep measures were compared among injured subjects with and without significant PTSD symptoms at follow-up and 10 noninjured comparison subjects and were also correlated with PTSD severity.

Results: There was more wake time after the onset of sleep in injured, trauma-exposed patients than in noninjured comparison subjects. Development of PTSD symptoms was associated with shorter average duration of REM sleep before a stage change and more periods of REM sleep.

Conclusions: The development of PTSD symptoms after traumatic injury is associated with a more fragmented pattern of REM sleep.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Polysomnography
  • Research Design / standards
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Sleep, REM / physiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / etiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Wakefulness / physiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / physiopathology
  • Wounds and Injuries / psychology