PTSD treatments in the army: A not-so-empirical approach

Hey guys!  As many of you may know, my group and I have been working very hard to educate ourselves in the realm of PTSD research, as per our book project.  However, I am sad to say that the project leaves us in the strict bondage of credible published work as possible references.  Sometimes, I must ask myself, why can’t I just use trashy mainstream anecdotes instead?  If Bill O’Reilly can do it, and then get paid millions of dollars to scream it out loud like he owns it why can’t I?  So without further ado, I would like to summarize a couple of interesting PTSD-related articles that I have come across on my favorite website concerning the latest advances in technology, wired.com.

I am an avid patron of wired.com, and I think that they have a way of explaining the latest technological advances with regard to applications for leisure and medicine so that the layman can easily understand the essence of such advances without requiring extensive previous knowledge in related fields.  This being said, I was more than excited to see a front-page article concerning military treatments for PTSD while I happened to be working on my chapter.  This article discusses some military research concerning the disorder, which seemed interesting; considering the military’s strong impetus to find treatments for the disorder, one might expect military research to be close to cutting edge in the field.  However, the studies that the military claims to have performed both baffle and confuse me in light of the prolific amount of research in more academic PTSD studies that I have done.

The first article, for example, begins by summarizing the strong impetus for the military to combat PTSD; essentially, the more soldiers that come back from the war demonstrating strong symptoms of PTSD, the more public opposition to the war the military will face.  And this does not even address the cost of treating all of these individuals.  Thus the army has tried every strange remedy from acupuncture to dog therapy in order to alleviate the disorder.  As these authors put it put it:
“The military is scrambling for new ways to treat the brain injuries and post-traumatic stress of troops returning home from war. And every kind of therapy — no matter how far outside the accepted medical form — is being considered. The Army just unveiled a $4 million program to investigate everything from “spiritual ministry, transcendental meditation,
[and] yoga” to “bioenergies such as Qi gong, Reiki, [and] distant healing” to mend the psyches of wounded troops.

As many as 17 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, one congressional study estimates. Nearly 3,300 troops have suffered traumatic brain injury, or TBI, according to statistics assembled last summer. And the lifetime costs of treating these ailments could pile up to as much as $35 billion, a Columbia University report guesses.”

In this article, the author summarizes claims by the military that PTSD can be treated by injecting a local anesthetic directly into the stellate ganglion block at the base of the neck.  Apparently, this directly led to the dissipation of symptoms that would fit a legitimate DSM-IV diagnosis of PTSD.

Because this is a blog entry rather than a formal expository essay, I will not at all try to hide my skepticism concerning the efficacy of this procedure.  First off, one of my partners in this book project, Jen, who is writing the chapter on treatments, has never heard of such a treatment, suggesting that it may not be within the realm of respected published work.  Also, the study was conducted with, get this… two subjects.  By most academic standards, this sample size would be considered woefully inadequate.  Furthermore, given that the treated individual merely described feeling relaxed suggests that a small dose of barbiturates might have yielded the same therapeutic effect.  Therefore, it boggles my mind that the army would instead opt to invasively inject local anesthetics (paralyzing agents) into a part of the body that makes up part of the single most important liaison between sensory information from the body and understanding of that information in the brain.  It simply seems like giving them drugs would do the same thing without being quite as intrusive.

And speaking of drugs… the army has even experimentally tried ecstasy (MDMA) as a facilitator of PTSD rehabilitation therapy.  Even though this seems completely bat-shit crazy, it is actually a more impressive attempt to deal with the causes of PTSD rather than the symptoms, in stark contrast to that whole aforementioned “oh hey, who gives a crap; let’s just paralyze their synapses so they can’t perceive stressful stimuli as well!” idea.  As a matter of fact, ecstasy has proven itself to be an incredibly useful in facilitating empathy and emotional reflection in the realms of therapy (Johansen and Krebs, 2009). According to wired however, such treatments are not in the military’s primary interest because the focus on drugs decreases the subjective legitimacy of those treatments.  Simply stated, it does not look good for the military that they treat soldiers with illegal substances.  Thus they are more likely to invest in ganglion injections and wacky dog therapies instead.  This is not any sort of nail in the coffin of ecstasy as a therapeutic treatment however, seeing as the military has also developed effective amphetamines for the express purpose of helping pilots stay awake during long outings.  Maybe one day ecstasy will prove itself as more than just a hard hitting party drug; one day it may find itself once again in the offices of psychiatrists and therapists across the country.  Until then, we must leave it to the ravers.

Johansen, P. and Krebs, T.S. (2009). How could MDMA (ecstasy) help anxiety disorders? A neurobiological rationale. Journal of Pyshcopharmacology, 23, 389-391.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/03/mdma-ptsd/

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/04/pentagon-scientists-inject-necks-to-cure-ptsd/

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/03/army-bioenergy/

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3 thoughts on “PTSD treatments in the army: A not-so-empirical approach

  1. haha talk about alternative therapies… one of my friends asked me about dog therapy when I told him I was researching PTSD, and I had never heard of it before either of you mentioned it. I think I need to look this up..

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  2. I’m glad you brough this up! I could not believe the wild treatment suggestions while looking up ptsd–from Ecstasy to drugs to antipsychotics to video games…. it really seems like things aren’t too ironed out in terms of ptsd treatment…

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  3. I like how you brought up the treatment with ecstasy! I mean, cannabis is widely used in treating patients with cancer who are going through chemo, so why not use other drugs to treat other disorders? Obviously its not so great for the brain, but I wonder how many times you have to take ecstasy pill before your PTSD symptoms are relieved? If it’s once or twice, it can’t be that bad for you considering the amount of damage that depression will do on your brain/neurons…

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