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PTSD treatments intensify in response to high suicide rates for vets

By STEVE DORFMAN | The Palm Beach Post | Published: June 24, 2019

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Suicide rates in the U.S. have been on the rise for more than two decades — and perhaps in no segment of the population is the crisis more urgent than with military veterans.

According to a 2018 VA report, veterans account for 14 percent of the 45,000 annual deaths by suicide in the U.S. — although they account for just 8 percent of the U.S. population.

Nearly 20 military veterans a day are taking their own lives and it's the youngest ones — those ages 18 to 34 who have been deployed to combat zones in Afghanistan and/or Iraq — who have experienced the highest rates of suicide.

Though the VA acknowledges that suicide ihas many factors, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often cited as being the No. 1 risk factor for veterans dying by suicide.

The VA is doing all it can to encourage vets to seek help for PTSD symptoms — nightmares, flashbacks, feeling perpetually on edge, inability to concentrate or socialize — but that can be challenging.

The standard treatments for those dealing with PTSD are various forms of psychotherapy combined with antidepressant medication.

But for many returning veterans, that protocol has proven ineffectual. The VA says that just 40 percent of vets with PTSD get relief of their symptoms with this approach.

So the search for new and innovative ways of treating what the VA has deemed a PTSD "epidemic" has garnered efforts from all over the nation.

For instance, Palm Beach resident, philanthropist and former U.S. Ambassador to Finland Earle Mack was so alarmed to learn of the ravages of PTSD on military veterans that, in 2015, he spearheaded funding and research for the Man O' War Project — a clinical study aimed at determining the efficacy of equine therapy in helping military vets deal with debilitating PTSD.

And just last week, a PTSD study done at Scripps Research Florida and published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests researchers may have found a specific traumatic-memory-related molecule in the brain that, were it suppressed, would "disarm the emotional memories of trauma that drive PTSD symptoms."

The Scripps preliminary findings will require much more research.

One of the most encouraging potential PTSD treatments — a local anesthetic injection in the neck called a stellate ganglion block — is being clinically studied by the U.S. Army and was featured last week on '60 Minutes.'

The stellate ganglion, which is at the lower base of the neck and in front of the vertebrae, is a collection of nerves that are part of the sympathetic nervous system. Doctors have long injected pain-relieving medication into this area in an attempt to alleviate pain in the head, neck, upper arm and upper chest. While the pain medication clears the patient's system within a matter of hours, the nerve-deadening effects — or "block" of the stellate ganglion — can last for months.

The stellate ganglion is also involved in the body's "fight or flight" response to threats and, according to the '60 Minutes' report, when a person is suffering from debilitating PTSD, the stellate ganglion goes "haywire."

An injection into the area — in which doctors use a fluoroscope and are guided by digital imaging in order to find just the right spot — "numbs" a sufferer's symptoms of PTSD.

And often does so quickly.

One veteran, who said the injection began alleviating his PTSD symptoms within five minutes, likened it to "having a weight taken off my shoulders and chest." Other PTSD-stricken vets have reported similar immediate results.

An Army doctor involved in the stellate ganglion block clinical trials said he's found that 80 percent of patients are getting relief from their depression and suicidal impulses. In addition, there are no known side effects.

Because the treatment is still considered experimental, just 12 of the nation's 172 VA hospitals offer stellate ganglion block.

But if the encouraging early results prove the clinical efficacy of stellate ganglion block, it could offer the nation's PTSD-suffering veterans new hope in their post-military lives.

©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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