When military veterans return from stints overseas, they often bring home with them many traumatic memories of horrific scenes and experiences which can cause a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This condition can cause severe symptoms that affect both mental and physical health including depression, chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia and flashbacks.
A diagnosis of PTSD is often accompanied by a negative social stigma, which often deters service members from seeking treatment from medical professionals. When they do brave the process of seeking help, they are often flooded with information about prescription medications and therapy options as potential treatments.
Despite the multitude of options, many veterans try drug after drug without any significant relief of symptoms. When doctors have exhausted the possibilities, they often think outside the box by prescribing medications that while approved by the Food and Drug Administration, are not typically used for treatment of PTSD.
There are currently more than 1,500 items on a current catalog of drugs and other supplies that are commonly prescribed by doctors at the Veterans Administration for PTSD, and that list is not even comprehensive. Dr. Sue Sisley is a Phoenix psychiatrist familiar with the treatment pharmaceuticals available. She states:
“It’s a daunting list. When I show this list to our military veterans, they were completely nauseated because they have frequently been the target of so many of these medication trials.”
Some common classifications of medicines for PTSD include:
• Anti-anxiety medications (Xanax and Ativan)
• Antidepressants (Wellbutrin, Prozac, Celexa and Cymbalta)
• Antipsychotics (Abilify and Seroquel)
• Mood stabilizing medications (Depakote and Lamictal)
• Sleep aids (Lunesta, Ambien and Sonata)
Due to the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder, many patients need to take a combination of these drugs in order to address each of their symptoms. As with so many pharmaceuticals, these drugs often come with severe side effects, especially when they are combined with other medications.
Side effects range from minor to severe and include problems such as weight gain, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, behavior problems, dizziness and headaches. They can also cause addiction or dependence, even when used as directed.
There is, however, one medicine that doctors are not able to recommend at all. Marijuana is often heralded by veterans as not only being a medication that reduces their symptoms of PTSD, but that also reduces their reliance on prescription medications. Its side effects are much less severe than other pharmaceuticals, and marijuana is also less likely to cause dependence or addiction.
Dr. Deborah Gilman spent 22 years working for the VA and has recently written an open letter to lawmakers recommending cannabis as a treatment for veterans suffering with PTSD. She recently said:
“In my opinion, all of them could be benefitted to some degree by various properties in marijuana. Marijuana is useful for pain as well as for psychiatric problems.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee has recently approved an amendment to a spending bill that allows medical doctors to recommend cannabis as a treatment of PTSD.
While the vote was a positive step toward the acceptance of marijuana as medical treatment, the measure and the bill still require a number of steps before becoming a law. Advocates such as Gilman and Sisley, however, remain enthusiastic that cannabis will soon become a legal medical treatment for those who suffer with PTSD.