In my clinical experience, many chronic PTSD patients have been given group therapy, in which they meet with other PTSD sufferers who have had similar experiences. I have found that this sort of treatment has been next to worthless for a significant percentage of such patients, particularly those patients who have been severely disabled by their disorder and who have been unable to work for years or even decades.
Here’s what they said:
“Although [benzos] are effective anxiolytics [anti-anxiety] and anti-panic agents, they are contraindicated [italics mine] for PTSD treatment. They don’t reduce re-experiencing or avoiding/numbing behavior. They should not be prescribed in patients with past or present alcohol/drug abuse or dependence. Finally, they may produce psychomotor slowing or exacerbate depression. [Benzo’s] do not have any advantage over other classes of medications; therefore they cannot be recommended as monotherapy [again, my italics] in PTSD at this time.”
Being the cynical critic that I am, I should not have been shocked how a supposedly scientific document could be filled with so many half truths. (I’ll enumerate them shortly). But I was. And then I remembered that the pharmaceutical companies had been demonizing benzo’s ever since they all went generic and therefore became far less profitable for the companies (See my earlier post).
The Cognitive Behavioral Mafia folks also has a vested interest in demonizing benzodiazepines, it seems to me, since the drugs are so effective for some symptoms. This leads to a situation in which patients would rather just take drugs than go to a CBT therapist to go through systematic desensitization, which can be a long, involved process that is sometimes itself quite traumatic in the short run.
This preference is unfortunately common even though it is probably better to treat chronic anxiety with psychotherapy than with medication alone, because when the therapy is successful, the patient might be more or less cured. Not so with the medication. If you stop them, the symptoms often return. (And no, not because the medications cause the symptoms, but because they stop but do not cure the symptoms).
Of course, it is also a perfectly good idea to treat anxiety issues with medicine for the quick relief and therapy for the eventual cure. You might then be able to stop the drugs after therapy is completed. Remember, there is no evidence that medications interfere with systematic desensitization. Still, the CBT folks (and many psychiatrists as well) seem to think of drugs versus therapy as some sort of competition or zero sum game, so their prejudices just happen to coincide with the interests of drug companies: demonizing benzodiazepines.
It is well documented by several news organizations that drug companies have insinuated themselves into scientific committees that draw up treatment guidelines to make sure that their interest in making higher profits from their brand-named medication is advanced. I do not have any proof, of course, but might this have been what happened with the ISSTS treatment guidelines for PTSD?
So let us return to the subject of the half truths in the ISSTS guidelines. Most of the misleading ideas in the paragraph reproduced above have to do with the misconception implied in the guidelines that PTSD generally exists in some sort of psychiatric vacuum in which PTSD patients show no other symptoms of any other psychiatric disorders as well (Comorbid conditions). In fact, comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception.
For patients suffering from PTSD, I find clinically that the most important common co-morbid condition is panic disorder. In this disorder, sufferers experience severe anxiety attacks with physical symptoms that mimic those of a heart attack. People who have been traumatized are especially vulnerable to developing panic attacks.
I found it difficult to find information about exactly what percentage of chronic PTSD sufferers also have panic attacks, but in one study it was 35% and in those patients who sought treatment, 49%! (Cougle et. al., Anxiety Disorders 24(2), p. 183, 2010.) In another study (Falsetti & Resnick, Journal of Traumatic Stress 10, p. 683, 1997) the percentage was 69%. More than two thirds!
Yet another study (MacFarlane and Papay, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders 180 (8) p.498, 1992) showed that comorbid panic disorder is an important predictor of PTSD turning in to a chronic disorder.
People who have panic disorder also often develop agoraphobia - the fear of being out in crowded places. Agorophobia is particularly likely to develop in combat veterans who have comorbid PTSD and panic disorder because of another symptom of PTSD: hyper-vigilence. It is as if these veterans have to remain constantly on guard for enemy soldiers, rocket propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices – even though they are now back home in a safe environment. Being hyperalert in a crowd will often bring on panic attacks.
This is probably one reason why patients with chronic PTSD and panic disorder may do not do well in group therapy. They are deathly afraid of groups.
Supposedly the first line treatment for panic disorder is an SSRI antidepressants like Paxil or Zoloft, but in my clinical experience benzodiazepines tend to be far more effective. The SSRI’s often only decrease the frequency and severity of panic attacks, but do not stop them completely as certain benzo’s often do. In fact, many victims of PTSD are already on SSRI’s when I first see them, and their panic symptoms and agoraphobia are not under any semblance of control whatsoever.
So I add a benzo. The combination of an SSRI and a benzo is probably the most effective pharmacologic treatment of panic attacks of all, but you will never find a study that shows that. In fact, you will never find a study using them in combination for the treatment of any disorder. The drug companies won’t fund such studies, because they don’t want doctors to think that benzo’s are good drugs.
Interestingly, the clinic I have been discussing allows patients who are on SSRI’s to get PE, whereas not so for those on benzo’s or the combination.
Back to the ISSTS guidelines. They correctly point out that benzo’s do not help the PTSD symptoms of flashbacks and numbing - but no one has said that they do. I agree that they should not be used as monotherapy for PTSD, as the guidelines say, for that very reason. But why would they be contraindicated (which means they should never ever be used under any condition)? The guidelines themselves start out by admitting that they are very effective for panic disorder, which as I have shown is highly comorbid with PTSD.
Well, maybe it’s because, “They should not be prescribed in patients with past or present alcohol/drug abuse or dependence. Finally, they may produce psychomotor slowing or exacerbate depression.”
Well first of all, the first statement is not at all true for all patients, particularly those patients who have been sober for a significant period of time. Two different studies have shown that ex-alcoholics do not abuse benzo’s at a higher rate than anyone else. Also, some alcoholics are drinking only because they are, in fact, medicating themselves with alcohol for their panic attacks. They often STOP drinking when put on a benzo.
And even if a chronic PTSD sufferer becomes dependent on benzo’s, so what? Is that somehow worse that being nearly housebound and completely disabled from work because of panic disorder with agoraphobia? I think not. And the drugs have almost no side effects. The worst thing about being addicted to a benzo is that you are addicted to a benzo.
Ironically, a lot of the PTSD patients I see are never taken off SSRI’s. Essentially, they are dependent on them. But somehow that’s different. How? Beats me.
What about benzo’s causing depression? They sometimes do. Rarely. The studies that led to FDA approval of the various benzo’s show that this happens in the range of 2-6% of cases. Not much different than placebo! Sometimes one benzo will have this side effect on a given patient, while another will not. And if they all do in a given patient, they can be discontinued. Or an SSRI can be added for the very effective combination therapy, which prevents this side effect as well as the panic attacks.
The treatment guidelines do not say that SSRI’s are contraindicated because some people might develop side effects, so why should benzo’s be? This is particularly nonsensical in light of the fact that one common side effect of SSRI medication is increased agitation. PTSD is an anxiety disorder!! (This side effect can also be treated with – you guessed it – a benzo).