What Medications Mey Help with PTSD?

Medications Options for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Close-up of the senior man hand holding a glass of water and the pills laying on the table.
What medications may help control the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?. Izabela Habur/E+/Getty Images

Can medications work along with therapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? When might medications be considered and what drugs are commonly used?

Medications for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

There aren't currently any medications designed specifically to address PTSD, though there are a number of medications used to treat both anxiety and depression which may help people manage the symptoms of PTSD.

The two classes of drugs used most often are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and PTSD

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are generally considered "anti-depressant medications" and include:

Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that is involved in your mood. These chemicals are neurotransmitters, and function to relay signals and messages from one cell to another in your brain. Some people do not have the appropriate levels of serotonin in their brain, leading to feelings of depression and/or anxiety. SSRIs prevent the breakdown or "reuptake" of serotonin by your brain, increasing the available levels of serotonin, which is thought to eventually improve mood.

Several studies have found that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be useful in the treatment of PTSD.

While these studies generally found that SSRIs were successful in addressing many PTSD symptoms, findings were not quite as strong as what is found in studies examining the success of cognitive behavioral treatments (a form of psychotherapy) for PTSD.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants are an older category of antidepressants, but have also been found helpful for some people with PTSD.

Tricyclics work by raising the levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin as well as norepineprine in the brain. Examples of these medications include:

  • Elavil (amitryptyline)
  • Ascendin (amoxapine)
  • Anafranil (clomipramine)
  • Pamelor (nortryptyline)
  • Norpramin (desipramine)
  • Tofranil (imipramine)
  • Vivactil (protryptyline)
  • Surmontil (trimipramine)
  • Sinequan (doxepin)

Symptoms of PTSD Which Medications May Improve

Medications do not generally address all of the symptoms of PTSD. SSRI's such as Prozac and tricyclic antidepressants appear to help with the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD and numbing, but do not appear to help with re-experiencing symptoms.

Other antidepressant medications may also be considered, though studies in combat veterans suggest that SSRI's and tricyclic antidepressants had greater effects and worked more quickly for associated depression and anxiety than other medications.

Medication Combined with Therapy

Medications may often be paired with psychological treatments for PTSD, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. On their own, medications and psychotherapy may be effective; however, by pairing them together, their effectiveness may be boosted.

Medications as Preventive Therapy for PTSD?

Given how common PTSD is among the general public, researchers have been looking at ways in which medications may be given for those in trauma situations in order to prevent the onset of PTSD.

At this time, there is some evidence that hydrocortisone (a corticosteroid), propanolol (a beta blocker) and morphine may decrease symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD.

Side Effects and Cautions with Medications for PTSD

It is important to remember that medications may not be for everyone. Many are associated with side effects that some find unpleasant and some may be addictive, especially benzodiazepines. It is important to discuss the pros and cons of treatments with your doctor or psychiatrist before committing to one.

Bottom Line Other Methods of Managing PTSD

PTSD is best managed with a combination of treatments.

Medications may help with some, but not all, symptoms of PTSD, and medications combined with therapy are more effective than medications alone. Coping strategies and social support are important no matter what therapies are sued.

New and innovative therapies for PTSD ranging from yoga to virtual reality exposure therapy to acupuncture are being investigated, and offer further ways to manage the debilitating symptoms of PTSD.

Sources:

Friedman, M., and N. Bernardy. Considering Future Pharmacology for PTSD. Neuroscience Letters. 2016 Nov 24. (Epub ahead of print).

Puetz, T., Youngstedt, S., and M. Herring. Effects of Pharmacotherapy on Combat-Related PTSD, Anxiety, and Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis. PLoS One. 2015. 10(5):e0126529.

Roque, A. Pharmacotherapy as Prophylactic Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of the Literature. Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 2015. 36(9):740-51.

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