Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is disturbing, distressing and unfair.
It is an anxiety disorder that affects about a quarter of people who have experienced a life trauma. The person’s brain is unable to properly and entirely process the trauma. As a result, the person can retrigger and re-live memories or emotions of the trauma continuously.
While trauma is difficult for everyone to live through, for those with PTSD, these symptoms do not fade away after 2-4 weeks. The person is left feeling like they cannot move on with their lives. Symptoms include:
- Flashbacks – Memories of the trauma that intrude on everyday life
- Disassociation – Episodes of feeling frozen and removed from the current situation (usually due to feeling a large amount of fear)
- Hypervigilance – Feeling constantly on edge and needing to protect oneself from the world
- Easily triggered emotions – irritability, fear, frustration, anger, sadness,
- Anxiety – Worry, fear, confusion, nervousness and tightness in the chest
- Sleep disturbance
- Pain and stiffness – muscle tension, joint stiffness
Treatment for PTSD is still evolving.
First-line treatment involves counselling and anti-depressants or sedatives. These can be very useful as the medication can reduce the severity of the symptoms until the psychotherapy allows the person to understand and process the trauma.
However, many people are still searching for a more effective treatment.
Acupuncture is increasingly being used to assist in the treatment of PTSD.
In the USA, the Veteran’s Affairs department offers acupuncture as an adjunct therapy for PTSD. Acupuncture has been popular for returning servicemen as some people do not respond to talking therapies and prefer not to take medication due to the side-effects.
It can also be a beneficial treatment, working alongside other therapies.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: How Acupuncture Can Help
Acupuncture is based on a holistic Chinese Medicine approach to human conditions.
It places less emphasis on the separation between the mind and the body. However, acupuncture is not a ‘talking therapy’, rather it affects change in the person’s mind, body and spirit by placing a series of needles in chosen points.
Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders due to its’ effect of the release of neurotransmitters that:
- Produce a profound sense of relaxation
- Calm the autonomic nervous system
- Improve sleep
- Reduce pain and tension in the body
- Reduce panic
Frequently, patients report that they feel more like themselves.
As acupuncture produces a profound relaxation, it allows the body and brain time to strengthen its own healing response. This includes strengthening neural pathways for a stronger parasympathetic nervous response (or the rest-and-digest mode).
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Auricular Acupuncture
Auricular acupuncture has been shown useful in treating PTSD. Auricular acupuncture involves needles around the ear. Auriculotherapy was developed by a French doctor and is used by registered acupuncturists, GPs, drug and alcohol workers as well as military doctors. (Koffmann, 2013)
The ear is particularly useful in acupuncture, as it is supplied by a number of different nerves and blood vessels.
It was also created very early in embryonic development, so it involves endoderm, ectoderm and mesodermic tissues. This means it is highly connected to the rest of the body.
Auriculotherapy has been shown with functional MRI scans to stimulate and downregulate different parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and amygdala.
Changing blood supply to different parts of the brain is a physical therapy that allows repair and changes in cognitive and behaviour patterns. (Jackson, 2014)
It is increasingly used to assist in processing trauma and reducing:
- pain and tension
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Research
Brief exposure to acupuncture significantly improved the symptoms of PTSD when compared with the usual care in a randomised controlled trial involving 55 veterans.
Compared with usual care, acupuncture was associated with significantly greater decreases in PTSD symptoms on CAPS and PCL-C*, and these improvements were maintained through the 12-week follow-up. The mean PCL-C decreases were 19.4 at the end of treatment and 19.8 at the 12-week follow-up in the acupuncture group, compared with 4.0 and 9.7 in the usual care group. (Wendling, 2008)
A systematic review covering acupuncture’s efficacy across a broad range of components of Traumatic Spectrum Response looked at 1,480 citations, with 52 systematic reviews/meta-analyses, all high quality except for one, was assessed.
Based on the results, acupuncture appears to be effective for treating headaches and, although more research is needed, seems to be a promising treatment option for anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression and chronic pain. It does not, however, demonstrate any substantial treatment benefit for substance abuse. More quality data are also needed to determine whether acupuncture is appropriate for treating fatigue or cognitive difficulties. (Lee et al. 2012)
- Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria (2012). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Booklet. Available at:http://www.arcvic.org.au
- Chalmers, J. Modern Auricular Therapy: A Brief History and the Discovery of the Vascular Autonomic Signal. Journal of Chinese Medicine, Number 84 • June 2007
- Ford, J. PTSD is the Amygdala hijacking Joe’s Brain. Psychology Today, 7 December 2012 http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hijacked-your-brain/201212/ptsd-is-the-amygdala-hijacking-joe-s-brain
- Hollfield, M. Acupuncture for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Conceptual, Clinical, and Biological Data Support Further Research. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics 17 (2011) 769–779
- Jackson, K. Treatment for Veterans with PTSD – Outside the Traditional Toolbox. Social Work Today. Vol 14, No.2, P 18. Mach/April 2014
- Koffman, L. et al. Acupuncture and PTSD: ‘Come for the Needles, Stay for the Therapy.’ FAAMA Psychiatric Annals May 2013 – Volume 43 · Issue 5: 236-239
- Lee et al. The effectiveness of acupuncture research across components of trauma spectrum response (tsr): a systematic review of reviews. Systematic Reviews 2012, 1:46
- Pease, M. et al. Acupuncture for refugees with posttraumatic stress disorder: Initial experiences establishing a community clinic. EXPLORE January/February 2009, Vol. 5, No. 1, p-51-54
- Medina, J. Neurobiology of PTSD. Psychiatric Times, 1 Feb 2008
- Wendling, P. Traditional acupuncture improves PTSD symptoms in veterans. Clinical Psychiatry News. 36.12 (Dec. 2008): p10.