VA is Trying New Ways to Treat TBI and PTSD

VA facilities explore light-emitting diode and stellate ganglion block treatments for veterans with mild to moderate TBI and PTSD


The VA is examining two alternative treatments for TBI and PTSD: a light-emitting diode (LED) treatment for mild to moderate TBI and stellate ganglion block (SGB) for PTSD.

In the LED treatment, which takes about 30 minutes, a lightweight LED-lined helmet is placed on the patient’s head, and more diodes are placed inside the nose to deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain. The light is painless and generates no heat.

Although it is considered investigational, LED therapy is available at the VAHS Boston, as well as for veterans to use at home. Dr. Margaret Naeser, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and lead investigator of the Boston study team, interviewed in VA Research Currents , says the technology has been around a while, but it was previously used on the body for wound healing and pain. Using it on the brain is new. The LED light has been shown to boost the output of nitric oxide, improving blood flow. Studies have shown that LED improves brain function, including attention and memory, emotions, and sleep.

Naeser says most of the TBI and PTSD cases helped so far with LEDs on the head included cognitive rehabilitation therapy. The patients showed additional progress after the LED treatments. A combination of both treatments would likely produce the best results, she says.

Providers at the Long Beach VAMC have been using SGB, commonly used in pain management with ropivacaine or bupivacaine, to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. According to the VA Evidence-based Synthesis Program (ESP), SGB may ease anxiety and the alert response by inhibiting connections between the peripheral sympathetic nerve system and regions of the cerebral cortex, such as the amygdala, thought to be abnormally activated in PTSD. Stellate ganglion block also has been associated with biologic markers of sedation.

The ESP experts say there is insufficient information to determine which veterans are most likely to benefit from SGB for PTSD, but an uncontrolled, unblinded case series of 30 active duty service members with combat-related PTSD suggests that those with predominantly hyperarousal and avoidance symptoms might be the best candidates. Patients who have undergone SGB have found it highly acceptable, although the invasive nature of SGB may be a barrier for some. Findings from the first randomized controlled trial of SGB for PTSD were inconclusive, the panel said; further research is warranted.

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