Approximately 70 percent of people in the United States experience a traumatic event during their lifetime and a significant number of these people later develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a chronic and debilitating condition that can persist for months or even years.
While there are several tested treatments for the disorder, very little is known about their comparable effectiveness. That’s why University of Washington researchers are looking for 180 Puget Sound men and women who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to participate in a new study that will compare the effectiveness of state-of-the-art medication and psychotherapy treatments.
Between 8 and 14 percent of the people who experience such events develop persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that can impair their lives, according to Lori Zoellner, a UW associate psychology professor. These symptoms include recurrent thoughts of the trauma; intense feelings of fear and anxiety when reminded of the event; nightmares; avoiding situations, people or thoughts associated with the trauma; feeling numb or having difficulty experiencing strong emotions; sweating, racing heart or hot or cold flashes when reminded of the trauma; and jumpiness or a tendency to be easily startled.
Participants in the study will receive free treatment for 10 weeks and follow-up assessments over a 24-month period, said Zoellner. In addition to the treatment, participants can earn up to $300 for completing follow-up assessments. At the UW, Zoellner is directing the $2.6 million multi-site study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
To be eligible for the study, men and women must be between the ages of 18 and 65 and have chronic post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a traumatic event such as sexual assault, robbery, automobile accident, assault with a weapon, combat or a natural disaster.
People in the study will receive at least 10 weeks of treatment — either the medication sertraline (Zoloft) or a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called prolonged exposure. Both treatment options are well established and have previously been shown to be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in large-scale randomized controlled trials. One of the main goals of the study is to directly compare these two treatments. Following the 10 weeks of treatment, participants may continue on the medication or receive booster therapy sessions, as needed, for 24 months. Those people who do not respond to the treatment they receive can switch to the other treatment option.
The study also is designed to look at the role of choice in treatment compliance and outcome. Half of the participants will select the treatment of their choice while the others will be randomly assigned to medication or therapy.
“In the real world people pick their treatment. Our study will let us look at the role of choice in treatment outcomes, ” Zoellner said.
In addition, the study also is designed to measure long-term treatment effectiveness through the 24-month follow-up and to assess relapse.
Through this process, the researchers hope to better understand what treatments work better for particular patients both in the short term and long term for the disorder, according to Zoellner.
People who would like to participate in the study or have questions about it should contact Helen Miller, a research assistant at the UW’s Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress, at (206) 685-3617.