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UVM researchers probe links between opioid use and PTSD

Published: May. 4, 2022 at 6:53 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Almost all people with opioid use disorder have experienced trauma at some point in their lifetime, and about a third of that population report symptoms of PTSD, according to psychiatric experts. University of Vermont researchers want to find out how simultaneous treatment of both conditions can help patients heal faster and more effectively.

Confronting discomfort is what the UVM study is all about. Over the course of 12 weeks, mental health professionals say participants could walk away with the tools to conquer the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. Dr. Kelly Peck, the clinical psychologist running the study, says the journey will be difficult but the destination will be worth the work.

“This is going to be a challenge, but imagine how different your life could look if you were successful with this,” Peck said. It’s his pitch to patients who participate in the treatment study. “What we know about PTSD is that avoidance of emotions, thoughts, memories, people, places, things that are associated with the trauma -- avoidance of those things -- although it helps people in the short-term, it actually helps to maintain those symptoms in the long-term.”

Peck and his team are applying that knowledge -- and proof -- that prolonged exposure therapy effectively treats those symptoms in people who’ve been prescribed methadone or buprenorphine. Since PTSD is prevalent in people with opioid use disorder, Peck is examining how the two treatments supplement one another for a better overall outcome.

There are two components to this treatment. First, the patient will work with a therapist to repeatedly identify and describe which traumatic event is most triggering. “Any thoughts, details, sights, sounds, smells, anything that they can remember from that event, and really try to put together a really detailed narrative of that traumatic event,” Peck said.

He says it’s like a horror movie -- the more times you watch it, the less fear you’ll feel. “We’re taking advantage of how we learn as humans, and that is with repetition. We get some experience interacting with these things that feel quite scary and over time, our emotional and physical response to those cues decreases over time,” he said.

The second component is real-life exposure. The therapist will gradually reintroduce the patient to environments that trigger a negative response. For example, a person who’s experienced assault may avoid large crowds or the place in town where it happened. “Making that distinction between what feels dangerous and what feels scary and what actually is dangerous and scary,” Peck said.

Researchers also hope to determine whether patients who attend more therapy sessions experience more progress, as attendance rates for prolonged exposure therapy are poor, given how demanding the treatment is. So, using some of the $750,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the team will pay some people up to about $1,000 to participate.

UVM is now recruiting 135 people from across Vermont for the study. Check here to determine eligibility.

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