Last week I talked about how once an extreme weather event passes, people in the affected areas are not out of harm’s way. Emerging health hazards often follow these events. According to Dr. Asim Shah, chief of the division of community psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, approximately 10 percent of people who live through a natural disaster such hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria will experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) within six months of the hurricane’s passing. Many who suffer will never seek help.
In a CBS News report, Dr. Shay also notes that children present a unique challenge in these situations, because PTSD symptoms manifests differently in kids than in adults. PTSD also does not develop immediately. Its symptoms usually take a month to set in. This places many of those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the middle of a critical period.
As we now know all too well based on the experiences of our military veterans, PTSD is a condition that can lead to a wide spectrum of devastating symptoms, from bouts of overpowering anxiety, to mind-consuming despair, to emotional numbness and distancing from loved ones, to night terrors and uncontrollable rage.
While some form of PTSD is estimated to impact 8 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 17 percent of active military personnel experience symptoms. Nearly 30 percent of veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan show symptoms of PTSD.
The standard medical approach is to treat PTSD with psychotherapy, medication or both. The problem is, many of those afflicted with this condition do not respond to this therapeutic approach. For many, nothing traditional medicine has to offer seems to help.
According to author Matthew Green, as reported in a cover story earlier this year in Newsweek, the problem is compounded by the fact that traditional medicine is far too comfortable tinkering at the edges of what is already known when seeking treatments and a cure for PTSD. They are too embedded in a global, multibillion-dollar complex of pharmaceutical companies, insurance firms and health departments to think outside the box in finding better treatments that work for those for whom existing methods have failed.
As Green points out, throughout history, individuals whose hunches prompted them to embrace convention-shattering ideas have accounted for some of the biggest breakthroughs in science; ideas that often came before the data backed them up.
Yet this spirit of innovation continues to be squelched by today’s medical establishment. Reaction to a recent $200 million donation to the University of California, Irvine to launch a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine is a prime case in point. This grant is one of the largest ever made to a public university in the U.S.
This grant funding will draw together resources from the University of California, Irvine’s medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and public health programs in developing alternative therapies that show clinical promise. One Yale University neurologist branded it as “ultimately a very bad thing.” In a story from STAT News, physicians from the University of California, Irvine’s existing Center for Integrative Medicine responded by saying the area of developing alternative therapies is exactly where medical schools are currently dropping the ball.
The integrative healthcare this grant will support is a combination of conventional medicine and alternative medicine, as well as a focus on lifestyle and wellness. One area of study might be to look at whether nutritional supplements can help keep some patients on lower doses of conventional medications that have troubling side effects. In addition to researching alternative therapies, the new program will use high-tech tools like genomic analysis and blood tests to try to tailor treatments and preventive care to individual patients.
Plans call for building a new facility, buying lab equipment, endowing up to 15 new faculty chairs, and building a “national showcase” that other medical schools will study.
“Most patients with PTSD do get some benefit from existing treatments,” says Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and staff psychiatrist at the Los Angeles Veteran Administration. “But the great majority still have symptoms and suffer for years from those symptoms.”
Dr. Leuchter and his colleagues at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior are hoping they can change this. Their answer comes in the form of an unobtrusive patch placed on the forehead. The patch is attached to a battery and is an external energy source used to make subtle adjustments to the brain’s electrical wiring as a treatment for drug-resistant neurological and psychiatric disorders.
While the person sleeps, the patch sends a low-level current to cranial nerves that run through the forehead, sending signals to parts of the brain that help regulate mood, behavior and cognition, as well as the autonomic nervous system. Prior research has shown abnormal activity in those areas of the brains of PTSD sufferers.
“We’re talking about patients for whom illness had almost become a way of life,” said Dr. Leuchter. “Yet they were coming in and saying [things like] ‘For the first time in years I slept through the night.'”
Based on positive results from the initial study, they have recruited 74 veterans who have served in the military since 9/11 for the study’s next phase.
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