Medication for PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health condition caused by experiencing, or witnessing a traumatic event, and the symptoms of which are varied but can be persistent and severe.
Thankfully, there are plenty of successful treatments available for PTSD. The treatments offered to those with PTSD will depend on the severity and frequency of the symptoms exhibited, but the NHS identifies the three following treatment options as suitable for PTSD:
- watchful waiting – monitoring symptoms to see if they improve or worsen
- psychological therapies – notably EMDR and CBT
- medication – the most common of which in the UK are antidepressants.
This article will discuss medication as a treatment for PTSD (within the UK) – its benefits, the types used, and any potential side effects.
The Types of Medication Offered In The UK
It is not routine practice for people experiencing PTSD to be prescribed medication, but you may be offered it if you are experiencing insomnia, have other mental health conditions like depression, or are either unable or unwilling to have the alternative therapies described above.
If you are offered medication for PTSD, it will usually be an antidepressant. Although PTSD is not the same as depression, this medication is considered the most effective at helping with PTSD symptoms, and up to 50% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD also meet the criteria for the diagnosis of depressive disorders.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommend four main antidepressants:
The first two antidepressants can be prescribed by a GP, but the last two must be prescribed by a specialist. Some GPs may also choose to prescribe other antidepressants such as sertraline.
Typically, the medication that you will be prescribed for PTSD are SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). These are by far the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressants as they have fewer side effects. SSRIs work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin into the nerve cell that released it. This ensures that your brain and body are acted on for longer by the serotonin.
Most people with acute PTSD will take medication for 6-12 months if they find it helpful; those with chronic PTSD will take medication for 12-24 months before being taken off it.
The Benefits of Medication
There are four main reasons for why medication may help with PTSD:
- medication can help to reduce PTSD symptom clusters, such as avoidance or hyperarousal
- medication can help improve sleep problems, decrease nightmares, and help with panic attacks and issues with concentration
- medication helps with mental health disorders that may occur with PTSD, such as depression or anxiety
- medication may reduce clinical symptoms such as impulsive, aggressive, or suicidal behaviours that can frequently complicate the management of PTSD.
Potential Side Effects of Medication
Every medication has possible side effects, but these will vary between the antidepressant and the person taking the medication. Side effects should improve within a few days or weeks of treatment: always consult your doctor before you stop taking the medication.
The particular side effects of SSRIs (the most common medication prescribed to treat PTSD) can include the following:
- feeling nauseous and/or vomiting
- heightened agitation or anxiety
- indigestion and stomach cramps, or loss of appetite
- sexual problems
- sleep issues
- tooth decay
- gastrointestinal bleeding
You should consult your doctor if you are experiencing side effects that bother you, have further questions about the usages of the medication, or if you feel you aren’t getting any results from it.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
Alexander W. (2012). Pharmacotherapy for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder In Combat Veterans: Focus on Antidepressants and Atypical Antipsychotic Agents. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 37(1), 32–38.
- Reger, G. M., Durham, T. L., Tarantino, K. A., Luxton, D. D., Holloway, K. M., & Lee, J. A. (2013). Deployed soldiers’ reactions to exposure and medication treatments for PTSD. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(4), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028409
- Aligning Clinical Practice to PTSD Treatment Guidelines: Medication Prescribing by Provider Type, Thad E. Abrams, Brian C. Lund, Nancy C. Bernardy, and Matthew J. FriedmanPsychiatric Services 2013 64:2, 142-148
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.