Dr. Roach: The effects of traumatic events on your health

Keith Roach
To Your Health

Dear Dr. Roach: I am a 63-year-old male with well-controlled coronary artery disease. I also have chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Last June, I was in a horrific automobile accident where a person hit me head-on. It took an hour for responders to extract me from my car. I was in intensive care for eight days, suffering from multiple fractures and requiring several surgeries, with more to come. The day before my second surgery, my father passed away unexpectedly. Naturally, I temporarily postponed the surgery. Thirty-two days after my father’s passing, my mother passed away, also unexpectedly. During the wake for my mother, a well-wisher told me that due to the stress and trauma as well as my underlying medical conditions, my life will be shortened. I am having difficulty, but I am dealing with everything. I could find no information about this. Have you ever heard of this?

— D.F.P.

Dear D.F.P.: I am sorry to hear about your difficulties and wish you a steady recovery.

It amazes me what even well-meaning people can say. This person’s intentions may have been good, but it was neither wise nor kind to say it.

The research shows that life-changing events — such as death of a parent or spouse, serious accident or injury, or other similarly traumatic event — do indeed raise the risk of mortality in the near term. More than one event has an even greater effect. However, the excess mortality risk is mostly in the year following the stressful life events. In other words, if you can get through the surgeries and this next year after your parent’s passing, there is not likely to be long-term risk.

Sometimes severe trauma and surgeries can affect a person’s mobility. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are other issues you are at risk for. It’s particularly important for you to exercise as best you can with your injuries, be very aware of your mental health and get professional help if needed.

Dear Dr. Roach: I have some orthopedic shoes that are worn out. When I walk in them, I can walk only two blocks before my calves get sore. I had a CT scan of my lower legs. It showed some narrowing of the blood vessels to my legs. Is it the orthopedic shoes or the narrowed blood vessels that are making my calves sore?

— J.

Dear J.: If the orthopedic shoes are the only ones that cause the calf soreness, it’s a good bet that the shoes are causing the soreness. As an aside, don’t wear worn-out shoes. Spend the money on new shoes when the old ones wear out.

However, soreness or fatigue in the backs of the calves after a specific amount of walking is a textbook symptom of inadequate blood supply to the legs. This is usually caused by cholesterol plaques in the major arteries of the legs, and the symptom is called claudication. It very frequently goes undiagnosed, and it’s important to diagnose it, not only to help the symptoms, but to prevent critical loss of blood flow to the legs. Moreover, blockages in the legs often go along with blockages in the arteries to the heart and brain, and medical treatment of blockages, including diet, exercise and medication, can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Nearly everyone with such blockages should be on a statin drug and aspirin. Most people could improve their diet.

Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu