Conference Coverage

VA/DOD elevate psychotherapy over medication in updated PTSD guidelines



– New federal clinical practice guidelines for treating posttraumatic stress disorder move trauma-focused psychotherapy ahead of pharmacotherapy as first-line treatment.

“That is quite a statement that is being made, and it’s a big shift in our treatment guidelines,” Lori L. Davis, MD, said at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, formerly the New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit meeting. Dr. Davis, who coauthored the update for the Departments of Veterans Affairs and of Defense, discussed the guidelines at the meeting in advance of their release this summer.

Dr. Lori Davis, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa

Dr. Lori Davis

According to the clinical practice guidelines update, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense strongly recommend individual, manualized trauma-focused psychotherapy above pharmacotherapy except when such psychotherapy is not available. In that case, pharmacotherapy or non–trauma-focused psychotherapy is strongly recommended, with the caveat that evidence was insufficient to rank either of these latter options as better than the other.

The guidelines, dated June 2017 and based on evidence reviewed through March 2016, specify that evidence is strong for first-line psychotherapy that includes some form of exposure and/or cognitive restructuring. Such therapies include prolonged exposure, cognitive processing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, narrative exposure therapy, brief eclectic psychotherapy, and PTSD-specific cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The Management of Posttraumatic Stress Work Group found that evidence was weakest for non–trauma-focused therapies, such as stress inoculation training and present-centered and interpersonal psychotherapy. Manualized group therapy also was rated as weak, but insufficient evidence was found to rate one type of group therapy over another.

Insufficient evidence also was cited for psychotherapies not specified in other recommendations, such as dialectical behavior therapy, skills training in affect and interpersonal regulation, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), seeking safety therapy, or supportive counseling.

“Some of these treatments have been found to be effective for the treatment of other disorders (e.g., ACT for [major depressive disorder]),” the work group members wrote, “but do not have evidence of efficacy in patients with PTSD.”

The recommendations are based on a review of literature from the past 20 years and are congruent with other treatment guidelines internationally, according to Sheila A.M. Rausch, PhD, who directs mental health research and program evaluation for the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan, is a work group member, and served as a panelist at the meeting.

“What is striking is that, based on people reviewing all the evidence out there – and there are different methodologies for doing so – regardless, [the different groups] tend to come to the same conclusions,” Dr. Rausch said.

The updated guidelines cite insufficient evidence for making any recommendations for augmented or combined treatments of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.

Medications considered to have a strong evidence base for monotherapy were sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine. In cases in which a person declines psychotherapy, those medications are recommended as first-line treatment.

Prazosin, typically used to managing nightmares tied to PTSD, received a “suggest against” recommendation, in part because of the discovery of a publication bias, according to Dr. Davis, who is associate chief of staff for research and development at the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) VA Medical Center and a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She noted that the work group remained unsure of “how to grapple with this” news that the study drug did not break from placebo in the treatment of nightmares in more than 300 combat veterans with PTSD.

“We are not trying to tell you not to use antidepressants for major depressive disorder or panic disorders that are often comorbid with PTSD, so you have to keep that in mind as you read these guidelines,” Dr. Davis said. Many patients already take antidepressants because they are easily accessed in primary care practices, she added.

The work group found that evidence generally was weak against atypical antipsychotics – particularly in light of the known adverse side effects of those drugs. However, the group singled out risperidone. “We suggest against treatment of PTSD with quetiapine, olanzapine, and other atypical antipsychotics (except for risperidone, which is a ‘strong against,’ see recommendation 20),” the guidelines suggest.

They also “suggested against” two antidepressants – citalopram and amitriptyline, a tricyclic. The quality of evidence for those drugs was deemed low. Two drugs – lamotrigine and topiramate – also received “suggested against” rankings, and the evidence for the use of those drugs was deemed very low.

Meanwhile, the work group wrote that the quality of evidence was low and “recommended against” the use of three other drugs: divalproex, tiagabine, and guanfacine. They also found the quality of evidence to be very low for the drug class of benzodiazepines and four drugs – risperidone, D-cycloserine, ketamine, and hydrocortisone. They also found insufficient evidence to recommend complementary and integrative health (CIH) practices such as meditation and yoga for treating PTSD. The work group did offer a caveat, however. “It is important to clarify that we are not recommending against the treatments but rather are saying that, at this time, the research does not support the use of any CIH practice for the primary treatment of PTSD.”

Cannabis and its derivatives also were recommended against by the work group because of a “lack of evidence for their efficacy, known adverse effects, and associated risks.”

Dr. Davis said the work group’s findings underscored a crisis in pharmacotherapeutic research in PTSD. Since 2006, there have been only four industry-sponsored drugs for PTSD. “I find it kind of sad,” she said.

Currently, Dr. Rausch’s own study for the VA focuses on comparing the effects of combination therapies for PTSD in the context of patient preferences, in order to tailor the treatments accordingly. In 223 returning veterans with PTSD, she and her colleagues are conducting a head-to-head comparison of prolonged exposure therapy plus placebo, prolonged exposure plus sertraline, and sertraline plus emotion memory management therapy to determine how starting a patient on both kinds of treatments simultaneously affect response.

“It’s clinically important to find out what is really going on in the brain and body,” she said. “Although we know we have therapies that work, we need to find answers for partial responders ... and how to increase the speed and magnitude of response.”

Dr. Davis’s research is funded in part by the VA, Forest, Merck, Tonix, and Otsuka, for whom she also acts as a consultant. Dr. Rausch did not have any disclosures.

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