To provide a critical review of prevalence estimates of combat-related PTSD among military personnel and veterans, and of the relevant factors that may account for the variability of estimates within and across cohorts, including methodological and conceptual factors accounting for differences in prevalence rates across nations, conflicts/wars, and studies.
We examined MEDLINE and PsycINFO databases for literature on combat-related PTSD. The following terms were used independently and in combinations in this search: PTSD, combat, veterans, military, epidemiology, prevalence.
The point prevalence of combat-related PTSD in US military veterans since the Vietnam War ranges from about 2 – 17%. Studies of recent conflicts suggest that combat-related PTSD afflicts between 4 – 17% of US Iraq War veterans, but only 3 – 6% of returning UK Iraq War veterans. Thus, the prevalence range is narrower and tends to have a lower ceiling among combat veterans of non-US Western nations. Variability in prevalence is likely due to differences in sampling strategies; measurement strategies; inclusion and measurement of the DSM-IV clinically significant impairment criterion; timing and latency of assessment and potential for recall bias; and combat experiences. Prevalence rates are also likely affected by issues related to PTSD course, chronicity, and comorbidity; symptom overlap with other psychiatric disorders; and sociopolitical and cultural factors that may vary over time and by nation.
The disorder represents a significant and costly illness to veterans, their families, and society as a whole. However, further carefully conceptualized research is needed to advance our understanding of disorder prevalence, as well as associated information on course, phenomenology, protective factors, treatment, and economic costs.