A shot in the neck has proven to be a much needed reset for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans who have received the treatment - Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB) - call it "a godsend," "a gamechanger," with one confessing after learning about the procedure: "I'm bawling. Hope came back."
Used for decades to treat chronic pain, SGB has only recently been tried for PTSD on veterans. The treatment gained interest after the VA realized its impact on countering suicide, which has become an epidemic, affecting roughly 20 veterans a day.
However, only 10 VA clinics across the U.S. offer the breakthrough procedure that has a Stellate Institute published success rate of 85 percent.
"This treatment is moving at a snail's pace," said Lance Price, a veteran, and director of the Florida chapter For the Love of a Veteran, Inc. "I'm not sure why, but if we had to guess, it would be because SGB isn't considered an established first-line treatment for PTSD at this time because the evidence is not conclusive."
The procedure is typically completed in the pain clinic of a VA facility and may require a referral from psychiatry. However, because so few VA centers offer the treatment, veterans may have to search for help elsewhere. For example, in Florida Richard Gayle, MD, a pain management specialist, offers the treatment. Financially strapped veterans who need to access care outside the VA may receive assistance via For the Love of a Veteran, which covers the medical costs for SGB shots.
Lance Price, who received SGB treatment in October 2021, said: "my flashbacks, night terrors, insomnia have dramatically decreased. The SGB has given me a quality of life that I haven't had since 2007. After the injection I slept 15 hours. I woke up refreshed like a cloud had been lifted or I literally was rebooted. If nothing else, the SGB treatment has given me the opportunity to get closer to my friends and family without constantly thinking about the worst-case scenario."
While Price hasn't needed a second SGB shot, many veterans do. SGB is not perceived as a miracle drug and may not work for all patients, many of whom may need multiple shots to receive continuing benefits.
Shay Seaborne, CPTSD, has had five SGB procedures. "I find great relief with each," he said. "Unfortunately, my trauma is severe and complex, so the relief only lasts a couple of weeks. But each shot builds on the last, so I hope this will help me reclaim my nervous system."
Marine Sgt. Henry Coto, who spent months patrolling war-torn Iraqi towns, and self-medicated post-military with alcohol and marijuana, had a dozen medications that didn't help before SGB helped relieved him of his PTSD symptoms.
Sean Mulvaney, MD, who administers SGB treatment, said: "These people wrote a blank check to their nation that included their life. As citizens, we need to help them when they come home."
In the meantime, researchers are working to pinpoint changes in the brain associated with PTSD. The newest theory is based on research that shows PTSD isn't only psychological. Repeated exposure to bomb blasts and the protracted stress of hazardous re-deployments may cause physical changes to the brain, making it hyperactive, according to Michael Alkire, MD, general anesthesiologist at UCI Medical Center in California. He noted that post-treatment, four of five veterans reported relief from depression and suicidal thoughts.
"There are very few things in medicine that work that quickly," he said. "At this time, we need to do more conclusive studies to prove what this treatment is truly capable of doing." He encourages veterans to never stop fighting for the life-changing treatment just as diligently as they never stopped defending the U.S. "If one treatment doesn't work, find another. The answers are out there for everyone to have a successful and fulfilling life. Never give up."