PTSD Assessment: Tools, Questionnaire & Scale

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of PTSD and how it is assessed through various tools and questionnaires. You will also learn about the CAPS-5, the scale used to diagnose PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

Tim is an Iraqi war veteran. He visits the doctors office at his local Veterans Affairs (VA) center for a routine medical checkup. His doctor notices that Tim is anxious, depressed, and easily startled. He decides to use several assessment tools to determine if Tim is suffering from PTSD.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental disorder that encompasses negative memories and thoughts, nightmares, avoidance behaviors, anxiety, guilt, blame, heightened arousal response, depression, and social isolation.

PTSD can cause many symptoms and effects.

PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic, often life-threatening, event. Fighting in war is a traumatic event for many soldiers and veterans, as in the case of Tim.

Depending on the severity of the war (trauma), 10-20% of soldiers experience some form of PTSD in the aftermath.
Soldier in war.

Brief PTSD Assessment Tools

There are several assessment tools Tim's doctor has to choose from. These are designed to take only 3-4 minutes, so they are very feasible and appropriate for primary care settings.

Usually these tools are self-reports, where the doctor hands the patient the survey to fill out themselves. If Tim has a positive screen it doesn't guarantee that he has PTSD, but his doctor can use it to make a referral to a mental health professional so Tim can get the help he needs. His doctor could administer any of the following:

  • Beck Anxiety Inventory - Primary Care (BAI-PC)

This assessment has seven questions that assess for not only PTSD, but anxiety and depression as well. Patients rate their symptoms on a scale.

  • The Primary Care PTSD Screen (PC-PTSD)

This is a common four question screen asking about the presence of nightmares, avoidance behaviors, tendency to be easily startled, and feelings of numbness to the environment and other people. Answering 'yes' to at least three of the questions results in a positive screen.

  • Short Form of the PTSD Checklist - Civilian Version

This assessment tool has six questions about three typical PTSD symptoms: hyperarousal, re-experiencing, and avoidance symptoms.

  • Short Screening Scale for PTSD

This seven question screen is a great tool for effectively predicting the presence of PTSD in any trauma survivor. There are five questions on avoidance symptoms, and two on hyperarousal.

  • SPAN

This is a four question scale that tests for startle response (S), physical disturbance (P) in response to reminders of the trauma, anger (A), and numbness (N) to people and the environment.


The Short Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Rating Interview, or SPRINT, is an eight question assessment that targets the heart of PTSD symptoms including avoidance, feeling numb, arousal and intrusion. It also screens for somatic symptoms (physical illness caused by mental stress or negative mood). It even screens for whether or not symptoms are affecting role and social functioning.

  • Trauma Screening Questionnaire (TSQ)

This screen is the longest one and has 10 questions assessing for symptoms in the re-experiencing and arousal categories.

PTSD Checklist or PCL-5

The PCL-5 stands for PTSD Checklist for the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition) and is a questionnaire used for diagnosing PTSD and monitoring post-treatment changes. Tim checks off all 20 symptoms listed on the PCL-5.

Tim has all five intrusion symptoms. He has (1) constant negative memories of being in battle (2), nightmares of seeing people die, (3) disassociation episodes where he escapes consciousness and feels like he is reliving war scenes, (4) feels very stressed when exposed to a reminder of war, and (5) sometimes has shortened breath or headaches when exposed to a reminder of war.

Tim has both avoidance symptoms. He (1) tries hard to avoid having negative memories of war because they are so distressing, and (2) avoids fellow veterans or other people who remind him of war.

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