Current Treatments for Veterans With PTSD to Include Medical Cannabis

Hello and welcome, this is the second part of a two-part article series on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the prevailing treatments for it including medical cannabis.  The first part of this article explained what PTSD was, how long it has been around, and the signs and symptoms of someone suffering from PTSD.  This article covers the current treatments for PTSD to include an extensive amount of information on the promising status of medical cannabis as a viable treatment and therapy option for those who suffer from PTSD.

Currently, there are two different approaches when it comes to treating someone who suffers from PTSD.  The first is a therapy type of approach commonly referred to psychotherapy. The second form of treatment is medication. Although some people show signs of benefiting from simultaneously receiving therapy and medical treatments, there are just as many individuals who experience the best relief and improvements from merely undergoing therapy. And, others do extremely well in responding to standard medical treatments.  However, there are occasional instances where standard treatments aren’t sufficient enough to help the patient.

One popular technique known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is routinely used to treat sufferers of PTSD. The overall objective of CBT is often to enable an individual who is diagnosed with PTSD to confront the trauma that is causing their symptoms, understand the causes, and then change the way they view or think about or approach that specific traumatic event.

CBT can be comprised of several parts or components depending on the objective or desired outcome of the CBT process.  One such component is called exposure therapy.  During this process, the PTSD sufferer is asked to visualize or imagine the place or situation where their trauma occurred. The main objective is to have them recall the trauma, but in a controlled and comforting environment where they feel protected and safe. By facing the traumatic event head on with the guidance and assistance of a medical professional, sufferers can learn to cope with negative feelings that arise. This helps them to control their PTSD by becoming desensitized to the horrific event or situation that caused their initial trauma to take place.

Unfortunately, revisiting the actual circumstances of the trauma or recreating the situation in real life isn’t always viable or even plausible. CBT therapists often rely on the extensive use of virtual reality devices to help their PTSD patients recreate the experience and setting of the trauma.

Cognitive restructuring is another mainstream component within the CBT realm of therapy. In many cases, a person’s current memories of their trauma can become faded or jarred and, in many instances, just completely distorted. This causes them to experience overwhelming feelings of guilt or to have great difficulty in correctly remembering the main catalyst and causes of their traumatic experience or situation. The idea behind cognitive restructuring is that a PTSD individual works with a therapist to reexamine the event to provide some clarity and clear the murkiness and confusion in order to provide a more realistic account of what actually happened.

Along with therapy or instead of opting for or utilizing therapy, a medical professional may instead recommend a treatment involving the prescribing of medication to assist a person who suffers from PTSD symptoms. Typically, there are four general types of medications that are routinely prescribed for PTSD.  They are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs), Prazosin, and anti-anxiety medicines. Each medication has its own pros and cons as described below:

  • SSRI’s. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors are commonly prescribed antidepressants that are used by doctors to relieve the symptoms associated with an individual who suffers from moderate depression. The inhibitors work by increasing the serotonin levels located throughout the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that transports signals between brain cells and helps to balance mood. As you would expect and typical of many drugs, there are a wide range of undesirable side effects to include but not limited to dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, headaches, and sexual problems.
  • SNRIs. Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors work in a similar manner to SSRIs, which means they also affect the neurotransmitters that communicate messages between brain cells. They are medically designed to help regulate a patient’s moods. Although the standard side effects are typically mild, they can, in some cases, last up to several weeks after treatment begins. Typical side effects include excessive sweating, appetite loss, insomnia, constipation, and others.

· Mood or thought changes. It has been proven that PTSD can change the way people think and feel about the world around them. Mood or thought changes can cause the PTSD sufferer to struggle with remembering the event or trauma. They create a negative feeling about themselves and the world around them—resulting in their losing interest in even the simplest things, activities, and events they normally would have enjoyed. In short, they start to feel as if life is against them, and they remain in a constant state of battle with everyday activities.

  • Prazosin. Prazosin is a drug that was created to improve sleep and reduce the amount or onset of nightmares in patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are a few minor side effects that manifest themselves when taking the medication as prescribed for treatment.  They include lightheadedness and dizziness.  Other more alarming and severe side effects could range from chest pains, difficulty breathing, or a complete loss of bladder control.
  • Anti-anxiety medicines.  Anti-anxiety drugs are designed to increase and improve relaxation for those who suffer from PTSD. This allows them to feel more at ease with themselves and their surroundings. Unfortunately, a major setback for the use of anti-anxiety medications is they have the potential to easily become habit-forming or addictive. The reality is, the longer an individual is on the medication, the more of the medication they need to obtain or achieve the same results.All current treatments and therapy sessions that are normally prescribed for PTSD sufferers also come with an alarming number of major and minor side effects. However, there is another treatment or therapy method that is growing in popularity among the medical community, and it involves the use of medical cannabis.

Medical Marijuana for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

We have already determined and identified that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a known anxiety disorder brought on by the onset of an individual experiencing or going through a traumatic event or events. Combat, car accidents, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse are just a few examples of tragic events that can lead to someone developing symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms almost always involve fear, nausea, dizziness, depression, and sleep disturbances such as insomnia—all of which can last for several weeks, months, or more.  In fact, the symptoms can in some cases last for decades when left undiagnosed or untreated.

The three main characteristics of someone who suffers from the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder include a reoccurrence or re-experiencing of traumatic events; an increased sense of emotional arousal; or a complete avoidance of people, situations, events, and environments. The reoccurrence can manifest in the form of flashbacks or vivid nightmares, and they may be brought on by something as simple as a series of reminders of the trauma, which leads to avoidance of those reminders. Increased arousal normally manifests itself as a state of hyper vigilance or paranoia. Additionally, PTSD behaviors and experiences are often associated with symptoms of acute anxiety, nausea, and avoidance of activities as exhibited by someone suffering from the ailment.

Although PTSD can be controlled and in some cases eliminated with cognitive behavioral therapy, the truth is, it’s not always successful as a method of treatment. And while therapy can help some people with PTSD, the rate of effectiveness varies.  This is especially true amongst soldiers who undergo prolonged exposure (one form of CBT) where there has been an observed 20 percent drop-out rate at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

GROWING YOUR OWN CANNABIS leaves

As previously mentioned in the content above, medication can be used to treat the anxiety, sleep disturbances, and depression that is associated with PTSD, but these have also been shown to not always be successful. The reality is, the most commonly prescribed medications to help individuals who suffer from PTSD don’t effectively treat the entire condition and broad range of their symptoms. And that doesn’t take into account their increased risk for the known side effects that comes with most of the medications typically prescribed by doctors or medical professionals.

Due to the fact that current medical treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients don’t always completely work, the medical community has begun to embrace the idea of utilizing medical cannabis or medicinal marijuana as a viable form of treatment or therapy for those suffering from PTSD.

Recent studies have proven that medical marijuana can effectively treat PTSD symptoms in even the most stubborn and treatment-resistant cases. Because cannabinoid receptors are engrained and located throughout the brain and body, this allows both the mental and physical symptoms of PTSD to be altered in a positive manner with a properly prescribed medical marijuana treatment plan.

With more and more states adapting a more lenient stance toward cannabis use, the medical community is beginning to follow suit.  Previously, legal issues kept medical professionals from truly examining the positive effects cannavbis can have on individuals who suffer from PTSD. However, that is now changing as more and more studies are starting to be conducted in the United States and Canada.  Perhaps the most promising is the recent approval from the FDA to allow a study on the effects of medical cannabis for Veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Based on the results of that study, a true cannabis-based treatment and therapy regiment specifically geared toward treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might be available for the general public as early as a few short years from now.  The treatment or therapy would largely be based around the strains of cannabis the researchers include in their study, but would not negatively impact the type of medicine sold at dispensaries or change the federal government’s classification of marijuana.

Examining Marijuana and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Perhaps what is most exciting is the fact that the FDA-approved study is the first of its kind to allow researchers the ability and permission to actually provide cannabis to Veterans suffering from PTSD.  Previously, all prior studies involving medical marijuana and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have all been strictly observational. Basically, all that means is that researchers were generally aware of the fact that the study participants were utilizing marijuana as a form of treatment and therapy, but they could not legally prescribe or handout cannabis flowers or edibles themselves.

One promising study involved patients who voluntarily signed up for New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program. Because New Mexico was the first state to include PTSD as a condition eligible for medical marijuana, it only made sense that they would be on the forefront for this type of medical research. The study was designed to analyze the effectiveness of medical cannabis for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

This study involved administering the Clinician Administered Posttraumatic Scale for DSM-IV, or CAPS, to gauge patients’ symptoms. The results of the study showed that when PTSD patients were using cannabis, they realized a measurable reduction of 75 percent of their PTSD symptoms when compared to those patients who did not receive cannabis as part of their treatment plan.

Surprisingly, Canada also appears to be a leader in the use of medical cannabis as a method to successfully treat PTSD symptoms.  Between 2004 and 2006, the Canadian Forces Health Services Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centre in Ottawa conducted an outpatient study on medical marijuana for the treatment of PTSD on 47 patients who were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder induced nightmares.  The patients were administered nabilone, “an endocannabinoid receptor agonist,” to treat those nightmares. The results of this study provided data showing 72 percent of the patients suffered from far fewer nightmares or in some cases stopped having them altogether over the course of their treatment.  Particularly noteworthy was the fact that some patients also displayed improvements in their amount of sleep and their waking PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks or hypervigilance.

Because people who suffer from PTSD quite often experience anxiety-related nausea and vomiting, Nabilone was a natural choice since it is already used as treatment for nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. With that additional benefit going for it, nabilone may in fact have several more positive reasons to be prescribed to PTSD sufferers beyond what the above study has shown.

There have also been deeper studies conducted to try and determine if some people are more susceptible to PTSD than others.  In a 2013 study at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, researchers closely examined the endocannabinoid system in the brain. They concluded that PTSD sufferers had considerably lower levels of anandamide, a neurotransmitter, than individuals who did not have PTSD, and they also had a much higher number of cannabinoid receptors, which are activated by anandamide and other neurotransmitters.

The main benefit to having cannabinoid receptors activated revolves around their ability to effectively suppress or impair memory functions, which helps to lower anxiety levels in a person. This is particularly important because some of the compounds in cannabis can activate the same receptors as anandamide, thereby functioning as a pseudo-replacement for the neurotransmitter.

Of course, more research needs to be conducted examining how effective cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are at activating the cannabinoid receptors in the brains of humans.  Current studies show that CBD given to rats at the same time as a painful sensation caused the rats to forget the source of the pain.  This is of vital importance because researchers and medical professionals have already determined that THC can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety in a person regardless of whether they already suffer from PTSD.  It is when the various strains of cannabis are combined with CBD that they exhibit signs of being exceedingly helpful in subduing memories and reducing anxiety.

Marijuana, PTSD, and Reduced Risk

One of the reasons we take the study and use of medical cannabis so serious when it comes to treating Veterans is because the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has determined that many Veterans are turning to self-medication to treat their PTSD. This often times leads to substance abuse when attempting to naturally and safely treat their illness. When prescribed medications do not help, sufferers ingest drugs like marijuana and alcohol to alleviate their symptoms. But, they end up doing so in a manner that could actually cause more damage to themselves.

Although the VA hasn’t yet conducted studies examining the role marijuana can play in helping people with PTSD, it has found a connection between Veterans seeking health care from the VA and Veterans with cannabis use disorder.

According to the Department, 40,000 Veterans with PTSD who were seen by the VA in 2014 were diagnosed with cannabis use disorder. The reason for that is likely two-fold. People with PTSD are likely to self-medicate when standard treatments for the condition aren’t effective. While some turn to alcohol to help improve sleep and calm anxieties, others choose to smoke marijunana.

Here at Operation Compassionate Care, we understand the need to help our Veterans. We fully support the use of medical cannabis as a valid form of treatment and therapy, but in a manner that is safe for all Veterans who suffer from PTSD.  Our mission is to see that each and every Veteran is given the chance to receive medical cannabis as a form of treatment and therapy in an educated and safe manner. Anything less would go against everything we stand for as an organization.

If you would like to help join in our cause to help each and every one of our Veterans receive treatment and therapy through the safe use of medical cannabis, we urge you to contact us. Let us know how you feel and consider making a tax-free donation so we may continue in our efforts to educate and provide Veterans suffering from PTSD with a means to effectively control their symptoms. Help them to begin to enjoy life the way it is meant to be for all of us.

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