Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cognitive Behaviorists and Big Pharma Demonize Tranquilizers for PTSD

A medical society called the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) publishes a set of guidelines for treating those people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as soldiers returning from war zones or victims of natural disasters.

Treatments for PTSD generally involve both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications. No psychiatric medication controls two of the primary symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder:  re-experiencing the trauma as flashbacks, and becoming episodically numb or zoned out.  We do, however,  have a medicine that effectively controls the nightmares, believe it or not – an old blood pressure medication called prazocin. I will talk more about medication a little later in the post, but first let me discuss the psychotherapy of PTSD. 

Many types of psychotherapy have been employed for PTSD, with widely varying results. 

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.

In patients with chronic PTSD (who do not also have severe personality disorders or majorly dysfunctional families), it is generally believed that the most effective type of psychotherapy is something called prolonged exposure therapy (PE), which is an intense form of what cognitive behavioral therapists (CBT) refer to as systematic  desensitization.  

It is a difficult process in which - and I am grossly simplifying it in order to be brief (and since I do not do this sort of work myself) -  the traumatic experiences suffered by the patient are relived under controlled conditions so that the anxiety and other symptoms generated by the memories can gradually be extinguished.  I have read that doctors have even experimented with recreating the traumatic events using virtual reality through computers, projected images, and earphones, to enhance the desensitization process.

In a PTSD treatment facility I know of, I was told that if a patient were taking a benzodiazepine tranquilizer like Klonopin or Xanax, then they would not be a candidate for PE and would therefore be referred to the aforementioned group therapy.  I was told this was the case because, CBT folks believed, that tranquilizers somehow affect the learning process so that the PE therapy was not effective if the patient were on the meds.  I had heard this idea before from other CBT therapists. 

However, since people who take benzodiazepines are almost never intoxicated, I had always thought this idea a bit strange. So I asked the head of the clinic for a reference. He did not know of one.  Interesting, I thought.  So I did my own literature search. 

Well guess what?  I found exactly one study that showed that benzodiazepines might affect learning in rats.  But in people?  All of the studies showed they had absolutely no effect whatsoever. 

Yet another urban CBT psychotherapy myth.

But then things got even stranger. I was also told that I should check out the treatment guidelines from ISSTS, which said that benzo’s were not indicated for the treatment of PTSD, and that  this clinic followed ISSTS guidelines.  On advice from the clinic leader, I looked up said treatment guidelines, which turned out to be pretty amazing.

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).


  1. I don't know the ISSTS or whether they have ties to Pharma. I do know that the possibility of benzos interfering with the learning process in desnsetization procedures is not made up, but based on both common clinical observations and basic science. For desensitization to work, anxiety has to be experienced, and as you point out, benzos do a good job of extinguishing the anxiety. I can't paste links while writing on my phone browser, but a sample review of the detrimental effects of benzos on cognition in humans is : Tannenbaum et al.: A systematic review of amnestic and non amnestic mild cognitive impairment induced by anticholinergic, antihistamine, GABAergic and opioid drugs. A discussion of the effects of benzos on CBT for anxiety: Westra et al.: Cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmcotherapy: complementary or contradictory approaches to the treatment of anxiety disorders?

  2. Gad Mayer- Thanks for writing, but all that is theoretical. The actual clinical studies using live patients show that benzo's do not affect the learning process significantly, which is my (extensive) clinical experience as well.

    The psychoanalysts used to argue that meds would reduce the patient's motivation to do the hard work of therapy. That can be true, but it doesn't have to be. I find that when the patient comes back for medication follow up, I have more time to convince them that they should also be in therapy.

  3. Very interesting post only one quibble at the end: PTSD *was* categorized as an anxiety disorder (I believe in DSM 5 they created a new category for traumatic stress disorders) but it was originally very close to being subsumed under the heading of dissociative disorders, the APA ultimately put it in the anxiety category because it was seen as easier to get insurance reimbursements that way.

    1. Interesting - I hadn't heard about that last part. Yes, trauma disorders are now separate in DSM-5, but PTSD has aspects of several different categories in the DSM including dissociative disorders.

      The categories themselves are based primarily on superficial phenotypical characteristics (like the [dumb] idea of "spectrum disorders"). Re-categorizing things has therefore been for the most part completely pointless. Clearly, anxiety is a major part of PTSD.

  4. Benzo's are highly addictive and the rebound is worse than the problem...
    Search for benzo withdrawal and people that have gone through that hell before prescribing these drugs. It's a prescription for PTSD itself

    1. Some people have problems with them. Just like with any other drug, including aspirin. For the vast majority, however, they are among the safest and side-effect free medications available. Millions have taken them without any incidents or misuse.

  5. Thank you for this post. I have suffered with PTSD and panic attacks for 20+ years. For the first 12 of those years, well-meaning physicians tried me on a merry-go-round of SSRIs and SNRIs. Some did offer benzos, but I was terrified of the "addiction" possibility, so I declined. The agitation and increased anxiety from SSRIs were horrible. I finally learned that my super sensitive nervous system just did not improve with these drugs, I only got much worse on them (and felt spacy and agitated at the same time). Thank God I found a very insightful and compassionate psychiatrist who encouraged me to try a tiny (0.25 mg) dose of Xanax XR (I cut the 0.5 pills). Bingo. Relief. I got my life back and began to drive and work again. I gained perspective on my problems and had the capability to make important changes. I am very grateful for this medication. Yes, it does cause some physical dependence but so do SSRIs (and lots of other meds). I always wondered if it was in the best benefit of the SSRI pharma companies to demonize the "dangers" of benzos. Your post summarized that well. Thank you again.

  6. I am suffering tremendously right now because doctors are ignorant about benzos. I am currently having neck spasms due to injury that leave me so crippled every four days that it takes me five minutes to swallow a single pill. I discovered my clonazepam is the only drug that unspasms my neck muscles and stops or prevents ER level headaches. I discovered this by accident, as I take it only once in a while for sleep.

    I meant to try and sleep through my pain so that we could safely drive to ER in the morning due to snow, instead of at night. In the morning my headache went from blinding, dial 911, kill me, to a 4/10. I didn't know why.

    Shortly later I found out by simple search on the internet that clonazepam is an antispasmodic and muscle relaxant. The muscle relaxants I was prescribed were not working for me and also were dangerously raising my serotonin. I was sitting on the perfect treatment for my spasms and I wasn't able to use it.

    I asked my doctor for a daily dose for a short period, she declined because she 'didn't believe me!!!!' that clonaz was anti-spasmodic.. SO ARROGANT. You could just whip out your phone and check! So I went to the hospital, and TWO more doctors gave me the same speech and tried to accuse me of being a drug-addict looking for clonaz. They gave me a drug test. My prescription to clonaz is 25mg per 90 days.... because I myself tapered off of it to the point where I'm no longer dependent, but use it PRN for sleepless nights.

    I have never been told by a doctor EVER to cut, quit, or taper clonaz. It was MY choice, and now I'm being punished for it by being withheld from the one medication that could make me able to live my life instead of writhing in pain for almost a month now.

    I would HAPPILY get re-addicted to clonaz to be rid of these headaches that are MIND BLOWING and caused by muscle spasms, that occur every 3 to 4 days, and can only be stopped by clonaz! Which I have in very short supply.

    I have tapered off clonaz before and unlike the doctors I know how to safely get off of it. It takes a long time, but its totally worth it if you have real extreme and pain and need desperate relief.

    I wouldn't recommend clonaz for anxiety longer than two weeks or so, because it really is a tough one to get off, if you cold turkey you're in for hell. But for physical pain? When no other medication works? Absolutely. Same as for seizures or anything else that's serious and chronic. Clonaz is safer than Naproxen, which I'm currently taking and the naproxen doesn't even get rid of those headaches because it can't unseize my neck. It can only take down the inflamation, and reduces my pain for say, a day or two, by about 40% until the spasms get to extreme and they override it. The naprox is waaay more dangerous on my body, and I wouldn't even need it at all if I could have a daily dose of clonaz. I probably would have been closer to healing by now, instead I'm 27 days or so out and still getting pain that makes me literally, not figuratively, want to die, every three days.