Update on PTSD 2017: hope!

I have just spent a week in San Antonio, Texas at the AAFP FMX: American Academy of Family Physicians Family Medicine Experience.

Whew. Long acronym.

However, I attended two programs on PTSD. One was a three hour offsite one put on by the U. of Texas Health Sciences Department of Family Medicine. The other was a one hour program about active duty military and PTSD.

The biggest message for me is HOPE. Hope for treatment, hope for diagnosis, hope for destigmatization, hope for remission. I am not sure if we should call it a “cure”. Once a diabetic, always a diabetic, even if you lose 100 pounds.

In medical school 1989-1993 I learned that PTSD existed but that was about it. There was no discussion of medicines, treatment, diagnosis or cure.

Ditto residency. I learned much more about psychiatry reading about addiction and alcoholism and Claudia Black’s books then I did in residency.

Fast forward to 2010, when I opened my own clinic. I worked as a temp doc at Madigan Army Hospital for three months.

The military was aggressively pursuing treatment and diagnosis of depression, anxiety, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I worked in the walk in clinic from 6:30 to 8:00 four days a week. Every walk in had to fill out a screen for depression. They were trying to stem the suicides, the damage, the return to civilian life problems and addiction too. They were embedding a behavioral health specialist in every section of the military. I was amazed at how hard the military was working on behavioral health.

In 2010 I took the buprenorphine course, which is really a crash course in addiction medicine, at the University of Washington Med School. I took it because it was free (I had just opened a clinic) and I thought we were as a nation prescribing WAY too many damned opioids. Yes! I found my tribe!

This gave me a second DEA number, to prescribe buprenorphine for opiate overuse, but also hooked me up with the University of Washington Telemedicine. I presented about 30 opiate overuse problem patients (anonymously, there is a form) to the team via telemedicine over the next year. The team includes a pain specialist, addiction specialist, psychiatrist and physiatrist. They do a 30 minute teaching session and then discuss 1-2 cases. They often do not agree with each other. They reach consensus and fax recommendations to me. The Friday addiction one was shut down and now I present to the Wednesday chronic pain one.

But, you say, PTSD? Well, chronic pain patients and opiate overuse patients have a very high rate of comorbid psychiatric diagnoses. It’s often hard to sort out. Are they self medicating because they have been traumatized or were they addicted first and then are depressed/traumatized and anxious? And what do you treat first?

There was an ADHD program at this conference that said we should deal with the ADHD first. One of the PTSD courses said deal with the PTSD first. The thing is, you really have to address BOTH AT ONCE.

Tools? PHQ-9, GAD-7, PCLC and there is an ADHD one too. These are short screening tools. I don’t diagnose with them. I use them to help guide therapy along with the invaluable urine drug screen. Love your patients but verify. That is, the chronic pain patient and the addiction patient tell me the same thing: but one is lying. I don’t take it personally because they are lying to themselves. Also, studies have shown that many patients lie, about their hypertension medicine or whatever. If they have to choose between food and medicine…. I think food may come first.

The San Antonio program has a behavioral health person embedded in their clinic (like a diamond) and if a PTSD screen is positive, the doctor or provider can walk them over and introduce them and get them set up. This is more likely to get the person to follow up, because there is still stigma and confusion for ALL mental health diagnoses and people often won’t call the counselor or psychologist or god forbid, psychiatrist.

They have a protocol for a short term four week treatment. Four weeks? You can’t treat PTSD in four weeks! Well, sometimes you can. But if you are making no progress, the person is referred on if they will go. I have the handouts. I do not have an embedded behavioral health person. I wish I did. I am thinking of setting a trap for one or luring them in to my clinic somehow, or asking if the AAFP would have one as a door prize next year, but…. meanwhile, I may do a trial of DIY. No! you say, you are not a shrink! Well, half of family medicine is actually sneaky behavioral health and I have the advantage of being set up to have more time with patients. Time being key. Also I have seven years of work with the telemedicine and access to that psychiatrist. Invaluable.

So what is the most common cause of civilian PTSD? Motor vehicle accidents. I didn’t know that. I would have said assault/rape. But no, it’s MVAs. Assault and rape are up there though, with a much higher PTSD rate if it is someone the victim knows or thought loved them. Rates in the US general population is currently listed at 1%, but at 12% of patients in primary care clinics. What? One in ten? Yes, because they show up with all sorts of chronic physical symptoms.

Re the military, it’s about the same. BUT noncombatant is 5%. High intensity combat has a PTSD risk of 25%, which is huge. One in four. Not a happy thing. In 2004 less then half the military personnel who needed care received it. PTSD needs to be destigmatized, prevented, treated compassionately and cured.

The risk of suicidality: 20% of PTSD people per year attempt. One in five.

Men tend to have more aggressiveness, women more depression.

Back to that PCLC. A score of over 33 is positive, over 55 is severe. There is sub threshold PTSD and it does carry a suicide risk as well. In treatment, a score drop of 10 is great, 5-10 is good and under 5, augment the treatment. Remember, the PCLC is a screening tool, not a diagnosis. I often ask people to fill out the PCLC, the GAD7 and the PHQ9 to see which is highest, to help guide me with medicines or therapy. If I need a formal diagnostic label, off to psychiatry or one of my PhD psychologists or neuropsych testing. Meanwhile, I am happy to use an adjustment disorder label if I need a label. If the patient is a veteran and says he or she has PTSD, ok, will use that.

Untreated PTSD, the rate of remission is one third at a year, the average remission is 64 months.

Treated PTSD, the rate of remission is one half at a year, and the average duration is 36 months. So treatment is not perfect by any means.

Pharmacology: FDA approved medicines include paroxetine and fluoxetine, and both venlafaxine and one other SSRI help.

Benzodiazepines make it worse! Do not use them! They work at the same receptor as alcohol, remember? So alcohol makes it worse too. There is no evidence for marijuana, but marijuana increases anxiety disorders: so no, we think it’s a bad idea. Those evil sleep medicines, for “short term use” (2 weeks and 6 weeks), ambien and sonata, they are related to benzos so I would extrapolate to them, don’t use them, bad.

Prazosin helps with sleep for some people. It lowers blood pressure and helps with enlarged prostates, so the sleep thing is off label and don’t stop it suddenly or the person could get rebound hypertension (risk for stroke and heart attack). I have a Vietnam veteran who says he has not slept so well since before Vietnam.

Part of the treatment for the PTSD folks at the U. of Texas Medical Center is again, destigmatization, normalization, education, awareness and treatment tools.

Hooray for hope for PTSD and for more tools to work with to help people!


Let’s talk about alcohol.

I am a family practice physician and I talk to people of all ages about alcohol. The current recommendation is no more than seven drinks a week for women and fourteen drinks a week for men, no saving it up for the weekend. No more than two drinks in one day for women and no more than three for men.

“What?” you say “No way. Come on, that’s ridiculous.”

My patients don’t say “That’s ridiculous.” After all, they are paying me to do a physical exam and a preventative exam. I am supposed to give them advice. But what is the basis for that?

One drink is defined as a regulation 12 oz beer or 6 ounces of wine or two ounces of hard liquor. If it is a high alcohol beer or wine or liquor, the amount is less.

It is NOT the liver doctors that have given us these numbers. It is the cardiologists, the heart doctors. One drink in women or two in men lowers blood pressure and in general, has good effects. Go over that daily and there is a rebound in blood pressure as the alcohol wears off. Alcohol works in the same way as benzodiazepines: it makes people less anxious and more relaxed and lowers inhibitions. Both alcohol and benzodiazepines are addictive for many people. That is, they develop tolerance, it takes more of the substance to have the same effects, more tolerance and then it takes more and more substance to try to feel half way normal.

Cardiologists qualify this recommendation as follows: there is no recommended daily amount of alcohol that is considered heart protective because there are too many alcoholics. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for an alcoholic is none. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for the general population is none.

Alcohol withdrawal can be very very dangerous medically. I think that the three most difficult things to quit are heroin (and all opiates), methamphetamines and cigarettes, but alcohol is more dangerous. In heroin withdrawal all of the pain receptors fire at once, so it is torture, but people don’t die. With serious alcohol withdrawal, the blood pressure skyrockets and the person can have seizures, a stroke, a heart attack, delerium tremens and can die. In the hospital, benzodiazepines are used to slow the withdrawal, replacing alcohol in a controlled manner.

Alcohol does more than affect the blood pressure. Over time, alcohol can damage the heart and lead to congestive heart failure.

Of course, you know that it can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is sneaky: as long as there are a few functioning liver cells, the lab work can look pretty normal. The liver makes proteins for the blood and makes proteins that allow our blood to clot. Once there aren’t enough healthy cells to make those proteins, alcoholics will bleed quite spectacularly. If the amount of the protein albumin in their blood is low, fluid leaks from the blood into the tissues: so whatever part is “dependent”, that is, lowest, will be swollen. Alcoholics can have legs with swelling where I can push with my finger and there is a two or three cm dimple. Alcohol also can lead to gastritis and ulcers. If someone can’t clot and they are vomiting blood from an ulcer, the doctor gets a tummyache too, from worrying. Ow. The liver is also supposed to filter all of the blood in the body. As the liver gets blocked with dead liver cells, the blood starts to bypass it. The bypass is through blood vessels in the stomach. Remember that person vomiting blood? The swollen vessels in the stomach are called varicies and we don’t like them to bleed. They are big and can bleed really really fast. The person can die. I don’t like transfusing and really don’t like transfusing 12 units of blood. In end stage alcoholism, the liver no longer lowers the blood level of ammonia. Ammonia crosses the blood brain barrier and poisons the brain. We haven’t even discussed the lack of vitamin B12 and thiamine which can cause unraveling of the myelin sheaths on the long fibers in the spinal cord: this means that the person gets permanent asterixis and “walks like a drunk” even when they are sober. I’m sure I haven’t remembered all of the consequences of alcohol, but that will do for now, right?

How much alcohol daily causes the above charming picture? We Don’t Know. Really. And it is not okay to do randomized double blinded clinical trials to find out. Same with pregnant women: we don’t know if there is a safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and we bloody well can’t test it. It is safer not to drink while you are pregnant.

In clinic, I ask how much people drink. If they say 1-2 drinks daily, I ask what the drink is. Sometimes they look confused. I explain that I have one patient who has two drinks a day: however, it is a 12 ounce glass with a little ice and a lot of whiskey. I asked him to estimate how much whiskey and he said, “6-8 ounces.” That is, each glass is 6-8 ounces. His blood pressure is not under control and so far I feel like a failure as a doctor with him; he is NOT reducing the amount. In medical school, the two jokes were: How much alcohol is too much? More than your doctor drinks. And: How much does the patient drink? Double or triple what they tell us.

The popular word in college used to be that you could drink one drink an hour and still be “okay”. “Okay” to drive and it would wear off. Sorry, nope. Breathalyzers are now pretty cheap; buy one if you are drinking more than the 1-2 per day. And the college students that are binge drinking 6-8 or more drinks on Friday and Saturday: it DOES have long term effects and it IS doing damage.

Lastly, sleep and depression. If you are having trouble sleeping, don’t drink. No alcohol at all. Alcohol is a depressant. It helps people to fall asleep. But they do not have “normal sleep architecture” and it works AGAINST them staying asleep. People often wake up as the alcohol wears off. And the blood pressure is having that rebound, remember, and often their heart will race. That is withdrawal. If you are having trouble sleeping or you are depressed, do not take a depressant. It makes it worse.

I saw a nineteen year old in clinic who admitted to “occasional” heroin use. “But I’m not addicted,” she said. I said, “Well, that’s good. But I took care of a bunch of people undergoing heroin withdrawal while I was in residency and it looked like one of the most painful things on the planet. So I would advise you to quit while you are ahead.” I saw her a year later and she said, “When I tried to quit, it WAS hard. I was addicted and didn’t know it. I’m off now and I won’t go back.” So if you tell me, no problem, I can quit alcohol any time, I say more power to you. Show me. And if it’s harder than you think, get help.


Originally written in 2009 and updated a little today. The picture is just a little fuzzy…like it might be if I was drinking…..



Trust in the dark

Writing201’s prompt today is trust. This article in the NY Times about how there is no right way to grieve moves me: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/10/getting-grief-right/?_r=0

Trust in the dark

Oh Beloved
   Help me to trust in the dark
      Help me to take each step
         Down into grief
            As needed
Oh Beloved
   Help me walk in the caverns of despair
      Each step slow
         As if I walk through molasses
            The air is thickened
               My chest hurts
Oh Beloved
   Help me to trust you
      That just as I descend into grief
         That just as I move through despair
            That the steps will someday lead up again
               That I will rise and spring will come
Oh Beloved
   Help me to thank you
      For tears and joy