MUSC researchers release new findings on treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dr. Sudie Back (provided)

By Victoria

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- When you think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, you probably think of veterans of war.

But any traumatic event that causes fear, helplessness or horror can cause PTSD. Consider victims of sexual and physical assaults, natural disasters, accidents and those who endure the unexpected death of a loved one.

Now, consider this.

"Close to half of those with PTSD also suffer from substance abuse," said Dr. Sudie Back.

She's an Associate Professor in the Division of Clinical Neurosciences who recently helped co-author a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"It's long been thought you can't work on PTSD until you're clean," said Dr. Back. The study set out to prove otherwise.

"Once referred out, most don't go receive treatment for the addiction, which means they don't come back for PTSD treatment either."

For the past 10 years, Dr.Back and others have been looking at integrated treatment. That is treating the trauma and the addiction at the same time.

"There is the thought that addressing the trauma of PTSD could make substance abuse worse," said Dr. Back. "That is a legitimate concern."

She says there are two primary treatments for PTSD. One is exposure therapy. That is exposing the person to the very things that trigger their fears.

"If someone was hit by a drunk driver while going over a bridge, they might avoid bridges all together," said Dr. Back.

"Slowly, we have people go back into the real world and do the things they're scared of."

The second kind of treatment, she says, is talk therapy. The person suffering from PTSD revisits the memory of what happened and tries to look at it in a different way.

"A lot of vets have guilt, thinking they should have seen their sniper before it killed their comrade," said Dr. Back. "By revisiting that memory, hopefully they gain a healthier more realistic perspective."

She likens it to watching a really scary movie. The first time is frightening, but hopefully after watching it over and over again, it doesn't have the same impact.

The worry has long been that this kind of exposure and talk therapy might make the person suffering from PTSD self medicate because the experience is so painful.

"We've been testing it, and it does not increase relapse," said Dr. Back. "Once they start working on the trauma, they find peace."

Dr. Back says it's also more cost effective.

"Treatment for both PTSD and substance abuse can be done together in about 12 weeks. Treating them in two, separate clinics is more like six months."

Dr. Back calls the research promising and rewarding.

"I can't tell you what a great feeling it is. I've watched video of patients and I can't tell you how gratifying and meaningful it is to actually be able to see people getting better."

MUSC is still looking for veterans to take part in this study. If you or someone you know is interested just call 792-2522 or 876-0736.