Study of mind/body link in all traumas

May 26, 2000

Coffee-room chats between two Aberdeen University professors have led to pioneering research that suggests a crucial link between the mind and body in recovery from injury.

David Alexander, professor of mental health, and James Hutchison, professor of orthopaedic surgery, were concerned by the way the physical and psychological effects of trauma are treated separately.

They are now jointly supervising research by Alasdair Sutherland, clinical lecturer in orthopaedic surgery, into the effect of post-traumatic psycho-pathology on patients' physical healing.

PTP, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder at one extreme, can affect victims of everyday trauma, and Mr Sutherland has been investigating the progress of 200 patients with injuries from a range of accidents, from car crashes to falls.

"Most of the work has been done by psychiatrists looking, for example, at Vietnam veterans, but no one has really looked at it in terms of more everyday trauma injuries," Mr Sutherland said.

The two-year project, funded by a range of bodies including Tenovus Scotland and the Scottish Executive's Chief Scientist's Office, uses standard tests to assess the patients' physical and psychological response to injury. The study has not yet been completed, but Mr Sutherland's initial findings for 80 patients show that 40 per cent are significantly upset, according to assessments of a range of problems from lack of sleep to suicidal thoughts. And their physical recovery is significantly slower than that of the patients who are not defined as upset.

"What seems to be happening is psychological disturbance is interfering with the normal healing response to injury, and preventing the body effectively transferring to the healing phase. If this is shown right through the entire study, it may have quite a profound effect on the way we look after the injured," said Mr Sutherland.

The implication is that surgeons and psychiatrists will have to be more aware of one another's roles and will have to work together in treating injuries, he said.

Professor Alexander heads the Aberdeen centre for trauma research, officially opened last week by former Beirut hostage Terry Waite.

"We are lucky here in Aberdeen to have clinical specialists in the departments of surgery, plastic surgery and accident and emergency medicine who are very sympathetic to psychiatric aspects of trauma care," said Professor Alexander.

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