Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a growing problem in the U.S., driven largely by the prevalence of the condition among soldiers and other military personnel returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD, which is characterized by feelings of numbness, depression, guilt, vivid nightmares and disrupted sleep, among other symptoms, currently affects 7.7 million American adults, and some 15% of military members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s why new research suggesting a way to diminish the risk of PTSD after traumatic injury may be so promising: According to an observational study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, military personnel treated with morphine within hours after suffering a traumatic injury were significantly less likely to develop PTSD than those not treated with the narcotic pain reliever.
Some previous study, including an analysis of morphine use in children with burn injuries, has suggested that treatment with certain pain killers may interrupt the memory consolidation process that transforms a horrific trauma into a longer-term disorder. This latest study, which followed 696 members of the military who were wounded—but did not suffer brain trauma—during major combat in Iraq, found that, in the 243 patients who went on to develop PTSD, only 60% were initially treated with morphine. In contrast, 76% of the 453 patients who did not later develop the disorder were treated with morphine during initial resuscitation and trauma care.
The authors of the study, a team of researchers from the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, found that morphine dosage did not impact PTSD risk, and that type of injury and subsequent debilitation were not associated with higher levels of PTSD either—the rate of amputation was higher among military personnel who didn’t develop PTSD (5%), compared with those who did (2%), for example. Previous study has found a correlation between self-reported pain levels after a traumatic injury and risk for PTSD, and, the researchers write, the “reduction in perceived pain levels through the use of morphine or other opiates as part of trauma care may lower the rate of PTSD onset after major trauma.”