Points of View: Al Jazeera on Treating Veterans with PTSD

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There was a time when many considered Al Jazeera to be a voice of Middle Eastern terrorists.   Whether it was or not is a matter of conjecture, but most would now agree that Al Jazeera has morphed into a credible news organization.

In an era of conflicting points of view, “alternative facts,” political agendas and outright lies; it is difficult to find common ground or agreement on any issue.  As such, it is surprising that Reem Shaddad of Al Jazeera has written such an insightful article on the plight of US Veterans entitled:  “The Battle Within:  Treating PTSD in Military Veterans.”

Department of Veterans Affairs

While one could nitpick some of her conclusions, it is difficult to refute the argument that within the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) “the McDonaldisation of mental healthcare is a problem.”

” . . . if you go to any VA in the country, you’re going to probably get cognitive processing therapy or cognitive behavioural treatment (actually, prolonged exposure) because those are the evidence-based practices that they use. It’s like if you go to any McDonald’s, a cheeseburger is going to be the same.”

Yep, the VA only serves two flavors of milkshakes (chocolate and vanilla) to treat Veterans with PTSD:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy, and
  • Prolonged Exposure Treatment.

More to the point, if the VA’s two PTSD therapy programs don’t work, its doctors are likely to prescribe a cocktail of potent drugs to keep the Veteran’s symptoms in check.   This is hardly the outcome our brave warriors and their families should expect.

For an organization that prides itself on providing “evidence-based” medical treatment to Veterans, the GAO and the Rand Corporation have found that these programs resulted in negligible benefits for Veterans with PTSD.   In effect, “evidence-based” medicine seems to apply to every “alternative” therapy program other than the failed programs mandated by the VA.

As distinguished members of medical profession talk about “evidence-based” medical programs to treat PTSD, one can only wonder how warriors with the symptoms of PTSD in the distant past coped without the benefit of clinical trials.

Mind you, acupuncture seems to be have successful for some 2,000 years without the benefit of clinical trials.    The benefits of oxygen therapy programs have been around for centuries and there have been many documented therapy programs listed since as early as the 1930s.    Nevertheless, the folks at the VA – headed-up by chief spokesperson, Dr. David Cifu – still dispute the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy in treating Veterans with PTSD.

Despite efforts by Reem Shaddad and many others to expose the hypocrisy within the VA,  Veterans with PTSD and TBI will need to seek help outside the VA.

SFTT is not convinced that there is a “silver bullet” to cure PTSD and TBI, but it is abundantly clear that the two PTSD therapy programs mandated by the VA are not effective.  For this reason, SFTT endorses a far wider use of alternative therapy programs to provide Veterans with a “real” choice over the VA’s failed programs.

Sure, there will be some “snake-oil” peddlers and charlatans that seek to take advantage of Veterans, but it is unlikely to be nearly as severe as the opioid epidemic perpetrated by the “evidence-based” healthcare system.

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Marijuana and Veterans with TBI

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Thomas Brennan, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps, is the founder of The War Horse, a veterans’ news site, and a co-author of “Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War,”  makes an impassioned plea to “make pot legal for Veterans with TBI.”

Cannabis for Veterans with PTSD and TBI

In an “Opinion” piece for the New York Times of September 1, Mr. Brennan states to following:

“Most of the major veterans groups, including the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, support regulated research into the medical uses of cannabis . . .

“What I know is that it works for me. If I hadn’t begun self-medicating with it, I would have killed myself. The relief isn’t immediate. It doesn’t make the pain disappear. But it’s the only thing that takes the sharpest edges off my symptoms. Because of cannabis, I’m more hopeful, less woeful. My relationship with my wife is improving. My daughter and I are growing closer. My past is easier to remember and talk about. My mind is less clouded. More than anything, it feels good to feel again. My migraines and depression don’t control my life. Neither do pills.

“But I live in fear that I will be arrested purchasing an illegal drug. I want safe, regulated medical cannabis to be a treatment option. Just like the sedatives and amphetamines the V.A. used to send me by mail. And the opioids they still send to my friends.”

Personally, I am delighted that Mr. Brennan feels better and is recovering his life, but one man’s (or woman’s) experience with “alternative medication” hardly makes a compelling argument to justify universal endorsement.

Superficially, one could argue that pot is far less “addictive” than opium and the opioid variants currently endorsed by the FDA and the AMA, but I suggest that Mr. Brennan compelling argument touches on a far more important issue:

Officially sanctioned / LEGAL therapies to treat Veterans with PTSD and TBI are not working! 

No one should be surprised that Mr. Brennan and many other brave warriors are seeking alternative therapies – either not sanctioned or “illegal” – because the limited treatment options provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) are tragically failing the needs of our heroes and their families.

Last week, Maj. Ben Richard’s commented on a disturbing series of videos that trace a widow’s tragic quest to seek help from the VA for her husband who committed suicide when denied alternative therapy.

The tragic suicide of Veteran Eric Bivins is just another example of the abuse of power at the VA that literally makes “life and death” decisions based on a long history of failed treatment programs:  Cognitive Process Therapy (“CPT”) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”).

If the only choice for Veterans with PTSD and TBI is institutional abuse and lethal prescription drugs, why not run the risk (illegal or unsanctioned) and seek help that works?  In the case of Mr. Brennan, cannabis might be the answer, but SFTT seeks out programs that may offer life-changing therapies rather than medication that simply deals with the symptoms.

Personally, I don’t think that potentially addictive drugs are the long term answer for PTSD and TBI, but I can certainly understand why many Veterans seek relief outside the limited number of options and callous disregard currently shown by the VA.

Perhaps Secretary David Shulkin can bring about much needed reform at the VA, but the odds are firmly stacked against him.

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What do the NFL and the VA Have in Common?

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Like the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”), the NFL has eloquently side-stepped the effects of brain trauma caused my massive or repeated concussive events.

In a most disturbing study, the Journal of the American Medical Association has concluded that “110 of 111 NFL players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.”

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE

This should come as no surprise to most anyone who has followed repeated denials by NFL officials and team owners that repeated concussive events on the field of play lead to permanent brain damage.

Why?  The liability is simply too great and public outcry might hurt the lucrative revenue stream of the NFL, which is currently exempt from antitrust laws thanks to the largesse of Congress.

Personally, I don’t believe that the risk of brain injury will deter rabid fans from attending college or NFL games anymore than residents of Rome passed up an opportunity to attend a bloody spectacle at the colosseum.

Nevertheless, there is a strong grassroots effort to cut back on football programs for young children.  A recent news report from Tampa, Florida highlights the dilemma faced by parents whose 9 and 10 year-old children want to play contact football.

NFL Players and our Military Heroes

While NFL players have the opportunity to walk away from the sport they dearly love, the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces don’t have quite the same options.

More to the point, Veterans suffering from from PTSD and TBI have few possibilities given the VA’s limited menu of therapy options: Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT).   As the VA acknowledges, neither of these therapies has produced significant improvements in the well-being of Veterans.

To mask the their failure in treating PTSD and TBI, the VA has resorted to potent prescription drugs with unsettling side-effects.   In effect, treating PTSD and TBI has largely been a “loss loss” for Veterans with equally devastating results on their families.

What the VA and the NFL have in common is a culture of arrogance and denial based on a concerted and prolonged effort to hide the truth from those it purports to serve and protect.   In effect, the VA has told Veterans that “it is the VA way or the highway.”

Sadly, far too many Veterans have opted for the highway.

Dr. David Cifu and the Culture of Doom

Nowhere is this arrogance of the VA more manifest than in the pompous and self-serving performance by Dr. David Cifu, a consultant for the VA on PTSD and TBI, at a 2016 Congressional subcommittee:

Scholars in attendance were revolted by Dr. Cifu’s anecdotal and silly justification for why the VA’s policies and procedures for treating PTSD and TBI are so far out of touch with the latest scientific research.

Sadly, Dr. Cifu’s opinions reflect entrenched attitudes at the VA and deprive tens of thousands of brave Veterans the treatment they deserve to combat this debilitating injury.

While Dr. David Shulkin is cleaning house at the VA, he would do well to look at those like Dr. Cifu to determine if they are up to the task in reestablishing the credibility of the VA.

Veterans that talk to SFTT believe that the VA is useless in helping to address their problems with PTSD and TBI.

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Did the VA Hook Veterans on Opioids?

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Recent information suggests that 68,000 Veterans are addicted to some form of opioid (hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine).  The VA argues that “more than 50 percent of all veterans enrolled and receiving care at the Veterans Health Administration are affected by chronic pain, which is a much higher rate than in the general population.”

Oxycontin and PTSD

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained under the Freedom of Information Act,

. . . prescriptions for opioids surged by 270 percent between 2000 and 2012, leading to addictions and a fatal overdose rate that was twice the national average.

Citing a VA Office of Inspector General’s report, the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) said: “Between 2010 and 2015, the number of veterans addicted to opioids rose 55 percent to a total of roughly 68,000. This figure represents about 13 percent of all veterans currently prescribed opioids.”

The American Society for Addiction Medicine reports these startling facts on the opioid epidemic currently sweeping the U.S.

– Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015.

– From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel. The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.

While evidence provided by the Center for Controlled Disease and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the use prescription opioid painkillers has fallen some 41% since its peak in 2010, some 33,000 Americans died last year from addiction to opioids.  The addiction to prescription painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Percocet (oxycodone) are rampant in the U.S.

The VA and Prescription Drugs for PTSD

For well over 5 years, Stand for the Troops (“SFTT”) has been reporting on the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) fascination with potent prescription drugs to treat Veterans with PTSD.

Despite the VA’s dismal record in effecting any meaningful change in patient outcomes, a cocktail of prescription drugs (generally opioids) are often the last resort since the VA’s Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) treatment programs have proved largely unsuccessful.

In what continues to be standard SOP, the VA perseveres in treating the symptoms of PTSD without offering any compelling life-changing treatment alternatives.  In effect, the VA is tacitly admitting “we don’t have a clue,” while arguing that they are providing the best therapy available and to seek funding for new “clinical” studies that address symptoms and not causes (i.e. cannabis, for instance) of PTSD and TBI.

In our research (mostly anecdotal but with those “in the know”), SFTT discovered that many Veterans treated with prescription opioids for PTSD would become violent and often suicidal.  In fact, they would often either discard these potent drugs (“flush them down the toilet”) or sell them on the black market to civilians.

One former Veteran explained that his colleagues would often grind up oxycontin pills into a powder and sell it on the black market for approximately $500 a month.  So prevalent was this behavior, that the government forced a large pharmaceutical company to produce oxycontin only in gel.  The result:  sales at the pharmaceutical company dropped 60% once the black market disappeared.

Personally, I think the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry effectively colluded into turning many Veterans and a large percentage of our population into junkies.

The Rationale?:  The level of addiction in the U.S. and easy access by the public to potent prescription drugs is simply unprecedented if compared to other countries.

How to Fix the VA’s Opioid Credibility Problem

It is sad to read the daily stories of spouses and loved ones deal with ravages of PTSD.  A few days of reading the Facebook page of “Wives of PTSD Vets and Military” will give you some idea of the ravages of the silent wounds of war.

Sure, we can continue to medicate these Veterans and military personnel with prescription drugs to deal with the symptoms, but I would far rather see an attempt to reverse the causes of debilitating brain injury rather than mask the symptoms.

There are several noninvasive solutions used by other countries.  First and foremost is hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT that is widely used by the IDF.  For reasons that seem incomprehensible, the DoD claims that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that HBOT is effective.

Gosh, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that suggests that prescription opioids, Prolonged Exposure (PE), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) are effective either.  Yet, the VA continues to push it’s stale and misleading agenda that it is providing our Veterans with the best available treatment programs.

Surely, we can do better than “talk the talk.”  Let’s look for real solutions.  If it can’t be found in the VA, let’s give the private sector an opportunity to help our brave Veterans.

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