Bradley, R., Greene, J., Russ, E., Dutra, L., & Westen, D. (2005). A multidimensional meta-analysis of psychotherapy for PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 214–227.
The psychotherapy research literature on treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, with exposure and/or cognitive restructuring) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Exposure therapy involves confronting memories of the trauma or cues related to the traumatic event. Other CBT skills include developing skills for anxiety management or challenging distorted cognitions. In EMDR the patient is asked to develop an image of the traumatic event while tracking a bilateral stimulus. Most studies demonstrate the effectiveness of CBT for PTSD in the short term. However, many studies have excluded patients with comorbid conditions. For example, patients with PTSD often also have significant other symptoms like depression, substance abuse, other anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. In this meta analysis, Bradley and colleagues were interested in documenting the overall efficacy of psychological treatments for PTSD. They also wanted to report on any evidence on the long term efficacy of treatments for PTSD, and on evidence of the effects of excluding patients with comorbid disorders. Bradley and colleagues included randomized controlled trials published between 1980 and 2003 (i.e., 26 studies representing 1,535 patients). Also, they looked at outcomes defined in a few ways: change in symptoms as documented by the effect size, proportion of patients no longer meeting diagnostic criteria for PTSD (but who may have residual symptoms), and proportion whose symptoms improved significantly. Across all treatments, the average pre to post effect size was large (d = 1.43), and comparisons to control conditions were also large (d = .83). The results suggested that psychotherapy produced substantial effects for PTSD. Differences between types of therapy (CBT, CBT with exposure, EMDR) were negligible. Fifty six percent of patients no longer met criteria for PTSD, and 65% showed improved symptoms. At follow ups, 62% no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD and 32% were deemed improved, but the number of studies with follow up data were small (k = 10) and so the results could be unreliable. Of those who started treatment, 78.9% completed the therapy. Of those who were assessed, 30% were excluded because of suicide risk, drug or alcohol abuse, or “other serious comorbidity”.
Treatment guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies list a number of effective treatments for PTSD. The evidence for efficacy is strongest at post treatment, and more research is necessary to demonstrate efficacy in the longer term. There is currently little evidence that any one treatment approach is more effective than another, and some researchers are debating whether specific interventions like exposure is necessary to treat PTSD. Bradley and colleagues argue that we need more research on alternative treatments for PTSD and research on patients with multiple symptoms and comorbidities.
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