Flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder: the genesis of a 20th-century diagnosis.

E Jones, R Vermaas, H McCartney, Charlotte Beech, I Palmer, K Hyams, S Wessely

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Citations (Scopus)


Background It has been argued that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a timeless condition, which existed before it was codified in modern diagnostic classifications but was described by different names such as ‘ railway spine’ and ‘shellshock’. Others have suggested that PTSD is a novel presentation that has resulted from a modern interaction between trauma and culture.

Aims To test whether one core symptom of PTSD, the flashback, has altered in prevalence over time in soldiers subjected to the intense stress of combat.

Method Random selections were made of UK servicemen who had fought in wars from 1854 onwards and who had been awarded war pensions for post-combat disorders. These were studied to evaluate the incidence of flashbacks in defined, at-risk populations.

Results The incidence of flashbacks was significantly greater in the most recent cohort, veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War; flashbacks were conspicuous by their absence in ex-servicemen from the Boer War and the First and Second World Wars.

Conclusions Although this study raises questions about changing interpretations of post-traumatic illness, it supports the hypothesis that some of the characteristics of PTSD are culture-bound. Earlier conflicts showed a greater emphasis on somatic symptoms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)158 - 163
Number of pages6
JournalBritish Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2003


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