Considering cannabis for PTSD as a veteran? Check out these latest findings.
The topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among our military service members often pops up in news media around Veterans Day. This November, the latest of several important studies confirms what many veterans already report: that cannabis can aid in treating PTSD.
Why Do Many Veterans Experience PTSD?
While military members don’t experience trauma exclusively, statistically, those who serve have a higher risk of developing PTSD than civilians due to the nature of military service. An interesting 2013 study found that traumatic experiences that occurred during combat predicted the onset of PTSD in Vietnam veterans. But other factors such as pre-war psychological vulnerabilities were equally important for predicting whether their PTSD persisted. Combat exposure, prewar vulnerability, and involvement in harming civilians or prisoners all played a part in increased likelihood of a patient developing post-war PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs after someone experiences a severe trauma or a life-threatening event. The body’s nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:
- Mobilization, often called “fight-or-flight”, occurs when you feel your life is being threatened, requiring you to defend yourself or survive the immediate danger of a combat situation. Once the danger passes, your nervous system calms, your heart rate and blood pressure lowers, and your body resets to its normal balance.
- Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced too much stress in a situation and even though the danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck” in the event or events.
It’s normal for the mind and body to be in shock after such an event, but this normal response becomes PTSD when the nervous system becomes immobilized.
Recognizing PTSD in Veterans
Some veterans develop symptoms of PTSD within hours or days following a traumatic event, but often symptoms don’t surface for months or even years after a veteran returns from deployment. PTSD develops differently in each veteran, but these four symptoms are commonly reported:
- Recurrent, intrusive reminders of the traumatic event. This might include distressing thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks that play over in the mind. Someone with PTSD may feel like the traumatic event is happening again which can manifest through panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, or heart palpitations.
- Avoidance of people, places, or situations associated with the bad memories. The fear of having a panic attack may cause someone with PTSD to withdraw from friends and family or lose interest in work or hobbies.
- Negative changes in thoughts and mood. These may include exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself or the world. PTSD sufferers also experience persistent feelings of fear, guilt, or shame, and the diminished ability to experience positive emotions.
- Being on guard all the time, jumpy, and emotionally reactive. This can often include feelings of irritability or anger, reckless behavior, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, and hypervigilance.
Recovering from PTSD involves transitioning out of the mental and emotional war zone and helping the nervous system become “unstuck.” Traditional therapies include pharmaceutical medications like antidepressants coupled with mental health therapy. Medical marijuana may be one complementary therapy that veterans who live in states where it’s legal may consider.
Benefits of Medical Marijuana for PTSD Among Veterans
While much more research is needed to understand how cannabis might aid in the treatment of PTSD in veterans, a few studies can begin to tell us more:
- A 2009 clinical trial in Canada showed that the nighttime administration of THC reduced the frequency and intensity of nightmares in 72 percent of the 47 patients studied.
- A 2014 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs examined the effectiveness of medical cannabis in reducing symptoms of PTSD. The study examined patients of the New Mexico medical cannabis program. Results reported patients with PTSD who used medical marijuana experienced a 75 percent decrease in their symptoms.
- A 2108 Wayne State University study set out to determine if a brain exposed to THC caused lower threat-related amygdala reactivity. THC binds to specific receptors on brain cells that help regulate mood, sleep patterns, and pain perception. Scientists also think THC interacts with receptors in the amygdala and hippocampus to reduce anxiety. The study observed that low doses of THC showed measurable signs of reduced fear and anxiety. The ground-breaking study suggests that people experiencing PTSD reported less fear with THC in their system.
Next Steps For Veterans Considering Cannabis for PTSD
With more exposure to the benefits of cannabis, veterans have begun to ask about its potential as a PTSD therapy. However, many veterans stop pursuing cannabis upon learning that medical marijuana can’t be prescribed through the VA. Currently, the VA doctors cannot provide or recommend since the federal status for cannabis remains a Schedule 1 illegal substance.
An April 2021 bill introduced in Congress (H. R. 2588) would allow veterans to use, possess, or transport medical marijuana and would create a temporary, five-year safe harbor protection for veterans who use medical cannabis and their prescribing doctors. It would also direct the VA to research how medical cannabis could help veterans better manage chronic pain and reduce opioid abuse. On April 29, 2021, a reintroduced bipartisan bill saw new light. The bill would require the VA to conduct clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans. If passed, the measures would make state-legal treatments available to U.S. veterans without additional restrictions based on their veteran status.
In Ohio, PTSD qualifies for a medical marijuana card. Veterans who struggle with PTSD may consider this option as a complementary treatment. If you’d like to learn more about how you can get your state medical card to try cannabis for your PTSD, email us at medicateOH@gmail.com.
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Medicate OH’s Founder and Publisher is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public administration, both from Northern Kentucky University. She has more than 20 years of experience writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries, including positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop.
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