A Prompt Dose of Morphine Could Cut PTSD Risk for Wounded Soldiers

By Andrew Moseman | January 14, 2010 12:47 pm

navyhospitalFinally, some potentially hopeful news for military veterans coming home with the lingering psychological scars associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In a paper for this week’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, a team reports finding that troops wounded in Iraq who were treated with morphine right away were less likely to develop PTSD as a result of the incident.

The study of 696 members of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, all wounded in Iraq from 2004 to 2006, found that 61 percent of those who eventually developed PTSD had been given morphine, usually within an hour after being wounded. But 76 percent of those who did not develop PTSD had been given morphine [Reuters]. Neither the size of the morphine dose nor the severity of injury appeared to make a difference in the morphine effect, the study says.

However, the researchers can’t yet say for sure why morphine might have this moderate protective effect against PTSD—the pain relief itself could help, but there could be indirect effects that contribute, like morphine blocking certain brain receptors that affect how the brain encodes traumatic memories. Therefore, it’s too early to use the study in the field. “I would be very reluctant to suggest any change in clinical practice,” said Troy Lisa Holbrook of the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, who headed the study…. “We need to understand a great deal more how this appears to work” [Washington Post].

At least the study gives medical researchers a place to start. More than 40,000 military personnel have been diagnosed with PTSD since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Defense Department officials say many more surely have the disorder but have not sought treatment. Overall, experts estimate that about 20% of troops and veterans suffer from PTSD, along with 8% of civilians [Los Angeles Times].

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DISCOVER: Treating Agony with Ecstasy
Cosmic Variance: Guest Post: Tom Levenson on the Iraq War Suicides And the Material Basis of Consciousness

Image: U.S. Navy: Seabees building a hospital in Iraq

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Kyle

    “Finally”? MDMA has been proven in human trials to actually stop PTSD (with psychotherapy, and over placebo; not just a statistically significant finding but also a practically significant one: 85% were healed with MDMA, as opposed to only 10 or 15 with placebo), and it isn’t needed “right away” like morphine is. Morphine is definitely one avenue for prevention, but I think the MDMA study is more newsworthy, more interesting, and will prove to be more useful to our soldiers. Plus it is nonaddictive, unlike morphine.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Kyle — I agree that the studies on treating PTSD with the drug ecstasy (also known as MDMA) are interesting. DISCOVER actually just covered this:


    — Eliza Strickland, online news editor

  • paul

    MDMA is not ecstacy, it’s one of many drugs in the hodge podge of things in ecstacy. Do not confuse the two, because they most definitely are not the same.

  • Frank

    Paul, lighten up. You aren’t making the case for long term benefits of ecstasy.

    It’s good news to hear anything that helps our soldiers emotional recovery from war. Today we may lose more soldiers to suicide than combat. Foreign civilians will benefit from our soldiers well being too.

  • http://none John

    Wow! My first reaction was that use of morphine seemed extreme since I have read many medical articles concerning the use of hypnotherapy to eliminate PTSD, but since most doctors probably do not have adequate hypnotherapy [as opposed to simply hypnosis] training [i.e. at most maybe mail order or a few weekends] then if this works…good. However, I would prefer the non-drug approach first.

  • http://www.drjoyceglasser.com Joyce Glasser, Ph.D.

    Why can two people witness the same horrific, life threatening event and one develops PTSD and the other does not? Based on over twenty years of experience involving the resolution of peoples’ traumas at the subconscious level (that hypnosis is used to access), I can answer that question. Moreover, and to the point of this article, the intervention that morphine might play is the blocking of the negative/historically developed thought processes necessary to formulate a PTSD response. Examples: “am meant to die young”; “everyone will realize I am a coward”; “everything winds up being my fault”,; “this is my fault”; “I deserve to be punished for letting this happen”; “no one will want to have anything to do with me as a result”; “I don’t deserve to live”; etc.

  • http://happyandwell.com Mark

    Anything that helps sufferers of PTSD, with or without drugs, has to be a good thing. Interesting post.


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