It’s estimated that 9% of people in the US will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime; the numbers are much higher for veterans of military service: between 11 and 20% are diagnosed with this debilitating condition. And it’s no wonder - PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs in response to experiencing or witnessing disturbing and distressing traumatic events - which is common to most vets who have seen combat. By way of detailed explanation, Matthew Friedman, MD, Ph.D., Vice-Chair for Research in the Department of Psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, says that PTSD is common, especially among recent veterans, because deployed military personnel “have at some point felt helpless to alter the course of potentially lethal events; been exposed to severe combat in which buddies were killed or injured; been exposed to uncontrollable and unpredictable life-threatening attacks such as roadside bombs; or experienced exposure to the consequences of combat, such as observing or handling remains of civilians, enemy soldiers, or US and allied personnel.” We can all agree that that’s a significant amount of trauma for an individual to experience.
Thankfully there is hope for those who are seeking treatment for PTSD. Due to the many military veterans living with PTSD (and more diagnosed every year), scientists at government and educational institutions are constantly researching new ways to help those living with this mental health condition. Our goal is to shed light on some of the latest PTSD treatments that have been found to be effective.
Traditional Treatment For PTSD: One Size Does Not Fit All
A few months ago, we wrote about the science of PTSD; how experiencing trauma impacts different parts of the brain and ultimately changes it, causing the parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory to stop functioning correctly. When this occurs, it’s hard to separate safe and “normal” events happening in the present from traumatic events that happened in the past. Because of this, PTSD can impact daily routines, making it difficult to do normal tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. It can significantly impact work and relationships and left untreated, it can cause dependence on drugs or alcohol.
Traditional treatment for PTSD has been a combination of medication and therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). These treatment methods are an attempt to help minimize, or even eliminate, the distressing symptoms that people with PTSD experience.
However, a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a “one-size-fits-all” treatment prescription for PTSD does not work. It may be that traditional therapies work for one individual, but newer, innovative therapies work better for the next. The study concluded that it is vitally important that each patient is evaluated within the context of their unique set of PTSD causes and symptoms, and that their behavioral health professionals help them find the right combination of treatments that work for them, rather than use a one-size-fits-all approach. Further, it’s important for patients and medical professionals to keep trying different treatments until they find one that works - something that isn’t often done, as many sufferers give up after trying one or two treatment attempts.
What Are The Latest PTSD Treatment Options For Veterans?
Below are just some of the latest evidence-based treatments for PTSD. This list is by no means exhaustive. To keep up on treatment developments, watch the news or subscribe to military and scientific / health journals, some of which you can find here.
Non-Traditional Approaches Like Meditation & Acupuncture
Researchers have found that non-traditional treatments like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, and doing repetitive, peaceful tasks such as sanding wood, knitting, crocheting, restoring cars, or tying fly-fishing flies can be very effective tools in managing trauma symptoms. Horseback riding or having a service or companion dog can also help some PTSD patients.
A 2021 study published in Biological Psychiatry showed that trauma-focused psychotherapy can significantly reduce the symptoms of PTSD. This treatment, used specifically for PTSD, involves techniques such as "in vivo exposure," which involves directly facing a feared object, situation, or activity in real life, and "imaginal exposure," which involves facing the trauma memory. A person who is afraid of crowds, for example, may be repeatedly exposed to large gatherings. After a while, the person recognizes there is no actual danger, so this process eventually promotes new learnings in the brain.
Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)
You may have recently seen Prince Harry, on his mental health series The Me You Can’t See, undergoing this kind of therapy on camera in an attempt to show us (and de-stigmatize) how he is healing from childhood trauma and loss. EMDR works by having the individual with PTSD pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound (like following a moving finger, a flashing light, or a tone that beeps in one ear) while calling to mind the upsetting memory – until shifts occur in the way that the memory is experienced. A similar therapy is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as ‘tapping’.
Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB)
This treatment involves a shot of local anesthetic in either the stellate or C6 ganglions on the side of the neck, which numbs the nerves for 8 hours. When the numbness wears off, patients report immediate relief of PTSD symptoms. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that SGB therapy significantly reduced the severity of PTSD symptoms over a period of 8 weeks.
Three Key Takeaways
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with PTSD, know that there are multiple proven treatment options available. Perhaps some of these newer therapies may work for you. And remember, it’s likely that your medical professional will recommend a combination of more than one therapy to reduce your symptoms.
In summary, the three most important learnings to take away from this post are:
One size does not fit all when it comes to treating PTSD; what works for one person may not work for the next. Mental health specialists must view each patient as unique, requiring highly individualized therapy combinations.
The most effective PTSD treatment may actually be a combination of several therapies and medications; rather than just one.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again: Keep trying different treatments until you find the ones that work. It may feel like a slow healing process, but persist and you’ll find the combination that’s right for you.
Please note that any treatment must be done in conjunction with a trained mental health or medical specialist and not attempted outside of medical care.
American Psychiatric Association
National Institutes of Health
Journal of the American Medical Association