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Last updated: Aug 26, 2021
5 min read

PTSD test: is there a test for post-traumatic stress disorder?

yael coopermanAmelia willson

Medically Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

Written by Amelia Willson

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

It’s normal to feel scared following a traumatic event. Trauma triggers our fight-or-flight response, leaving us with a range of emotions that can affect us in both the short and long term. 

Around 7 in 10 people experience at least one trauma in their lives (Knipscheer, 2020). While the stress associated with trauma fades significantly over time for many, others are affected long after it happens, making it difficult to function on a daily basis.

If you continue feeling scared or stressed for weeks or even months after an event, you might wonder if you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Around 7% of people experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women being more likely to have it (Knipscheer, 2020; Institute of Medicine, 2014). There are online PTSD assessments you can take, but only a mental health professional can make an official diagnosis.

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What is PTSD? 

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a traumatic event. 

Traumas can include a wide range of things including the death of a loved one, war, physical or sexual assault, abuse, a car accident, or surviving a natural disaster. Even if a person didn’t directly experience the trauma themselves, they could still have PTSD from seeing a loved one go through it. 

Someone with PTSD grapples with feelings of fear or stress for months following the event––even when they’re no longer in danger.

Common symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD are often so severe that they interfere with a person’s daily life and overall well-being. 

PTSD is typically diagnosed when a person has experienced the following symptoms for at least one month after a traumatic incident:

  • Re-experiencing at least one symptom like flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
  • Having at least one avoidance symptom, such as staying away from places, events, things, or thoughts that remind them of the traumatic experience (for example, not getting in a car after being in a car accident)
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms like difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, being easily startled, or feeling on edge
  • A minimum of two cognition and mood symptoms, such as difficulty remembering trauma, negative thoughts, feelings of blame or guilt, or a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities

Is there a test for PTSD?

You can find PTSD self-assessments online from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, but it’s important to remember that a treatable diagnosis requires a full assessment by a mental healthcare professional.

Healthcare providers use one of three diagnostic tests for PTSD. These include the Davidson Trauma Scale (DTS), Post-traumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale (PDS), and PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5).

Davidson Trauma Scale (DTS)

Developed in the late ‘90s, the DTS is a 17-item self-reported questionnaire that asks patients to rate the frequency and severity of their PTSD symptoms.

Frequency scores range from 0 (not at all) to 4 (every day). Severity scores also range from 0 (not at all distressing) to 4 (extremely distressing).

For example, in response to the question “Have you had painful images, memories, or thoughts of the event?” a person would provide two scores: one representing how frequently they experienced the symptom, and the other representing the severity of it.

Post-traumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale (PDS)

The PDS is a 24-item questionnaire assessing the severity of symptoms from the past month using a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (severe, six or more times a week).

Twenty questions focus on PTSD symptoms, such as unwanted upsetting memories about the trauma. The remaining questions involve identifying the original trauma and when symptoms first began.

PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5)

This 20-item questionnaire is used to diagnose PTSD and monitoring the effects of treatment. 

There are three versions: one for civilians, one for military personnel, and one for specific types of trauma. Each test contains the same questions with slight variations in wording to describe the trauma.

All 20 questions focus on PTSD symptoms; for example, how often you’re bothered by repeated, disturbing, and unwanted memories of a traumatic experience. Patients are asked to rate the severity of each symptom on a five-point scale, with 0 meaning not severe at all, and 5 representing extreme severity.

PTSD self-test

While not a replacement for an official diagnosis, a PTSD self-test can help you assess whether it’s worth seeking professional help. 

Here is a sample online PTSD test you can take. For each question, rate how often you experienced the symptom in the past month on a 1 to 5 scale. Then, total your scores.

  • 1 = Not at all
  • 2 = Sometimes
  • 3 = Moderately
  • 4 = Often
  • 5 = Extremely often

Treatment options for PTSD

Not everyone develops PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, but if you do, getting help and support from loved ones and a healthcare professional is key to recovery.

Often, a combination of medication and psychotherapy is recommended (Institute of Medicine, 2014). If you feel that your symptoms are interfering with your ability to function, contact a mental health professional.

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP for 24/7 confidential support and referral for PTSD treatment near you. 

References

  1. Blevins, C. A., Weathers, F. W., Davis, M. T., Witte, T. K., & Domino, J. L. (2015). The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5): development and initial psychometric evaluation. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(6), 489–498. doi: 10.1002/jts.22059. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26606250/
  2. Institute of Medicine: Committee on the Assessment of Ongoing Efforts in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Board on the Health of Select Populations. Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military and Veteran Populations: Final Assessment. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Jun 17. 2, Diagnosis, Course, and Prevalence of PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224874/
  3. National Comorbidity Survey. (2005). NCS-R appendix tables: Table 1. Lifetime prevalence of DSM-IV/WMH-CIDI disorders by sex and cohort. Table 2. Twelve-month prevalence of DSM-IV/WMH-CIDI disorders by sex and cohort. Retrieved from https://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/publications.php
  4. Davidson, J. R., Tharwani, H. M., & Connor, K. M. (2002). Davidson Trauma Scale (DTS): normative scores in the general population and effect sizes in placebo-controlled SSRI trials. Depression and Anxiety, 15(2), 75–78. doi: 10.1002/da.10021. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11891997/
  5. Foa, E. B., McLean, C. P., Zang, Y., Zhong, J., Powers, M. B., Kauffman, B. Y., et al. (2016). Psychometric properties of the Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale for DSM-5 (PDS-5). Psychological Assessment, 28(10), 1166–1171. doi: 10.1037/pas0000258. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26691504/
  6. National Center for PTSD. (2018, September). Davidson Trauma Scale (DTS) for DSM-IV. Retrieved July 14, 2021 from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/assessment/adult-sr/dts.asp
  7. Knipscheer, J., Sleijpen, M., Frank, L., de Graaf, R., Kleber, R., Ten Have, M., & Dückers, M. (2020). Prevalence of potentially traumatic events, other life events and subsequent reactions indicative for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Netherlands: A general population study based on the Trauma Screening Questionnaire. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(5), 1725. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17051725. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32155752/
  8. National Center for PTSD. (2020, March). Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale (PDS-5). Retrieved July 14, 2021 from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/assessment/adult-sr/pds.asp
  9. National Center for PTSD. (2021, January). PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5). Retrieved July 14, 2021 from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/assessment/adult-sr/ptsd-checklist.asp
  10. National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, May). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved July 14, 2021 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd