The researchers hope that treating PTSD could reduce the risks of premature birth

An analysis of more than 16,000 births by female veterans found that women with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are significantly more likely to give birth prematurely.

PTSD has long been suspected of increasing the risk of premature delivery, but the study, jointly conducted by Stanford University and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, provides strong support for the need to treat mothers with PTSD.

“Stress is setting off biologic pathways that are inducing preterm labor,” Ciaran Phibbs, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford, said in a statement. The study, published online on Thursday in Obstetrics & Gynecology, offered hope that treatment could prove effective in reducing the risk. While women with PTSD in the year leading up to delivery faced a higher risk of premature delivery, women who had been diagnosed with PTSD but had not experienced symptoms of the disorder in the past year did not.

“This makes us hopeful that if you treat a mom who has active PTSD early in her pregnancy, her stress level could be reduced, and the risk of giving birth prematurely might go down,” Phibbs said.

The implications extend beyond women in combat, since PTSD is not unique to combat. In fact, half of the veterans in the study had never been deployed to combat.