Stigma and other barriers to care add to the complexity of treating veterans. Despite extensive education efforts among military leaders and service members, perceptions of stigma showed little change over the many years of war; warriors are often concerned that they will be perceived as weak by peers or leaders if they seek care. Studies have shown that less than one-half of service members and veterans with serious mental health problems receive needed care, and upwards of half of those who begin treatment drop out before receiving an adequate number of encounters. Many factors contribute to this, including the pervasive nature of stigma in society in general (particularly among men), the critical importance of group cohesiveness of military teams, the nature of avoidance symptoms in PTSD, perceptions of self-sufficiency (e.g., “I can handle problems on my own”), and sometimes negative perceptions of mental health care and skepticism that mental health professionals will be able to help.
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Evaluation of Veterans with Neuropsychiatric Health Concerns
Evaluation should begin with a careful occupational history as part of the routine medical evaluation; this includes the number of years served, military occupation, deployment locations and dates, illnesses or injuries resulting from service, and significant combat traumatic experiences that may be continuing to affect the individual (Table 471e-2). The clinician should evaluate the degree to which the patient’s current difficulties reflect the normal course of readjusting after the intense occupational experience of combat. It is helpful to reinforce the many strengths associated with being a professional in the military: courage, honor, service to country, resiliency in combat, leadership, ability to work in a cohesive workgroup with peers, and demonstrated skills in handling extreme stress, as well as the fact that reactions that interfere with functioning back home may have their roots in beneficial adaptive physiologic processes.
One of the challenges with current medical practice is that there may be multiple providers with different clinical perspectives. Care should be coordinated through the primary care clinician, with the assistance of a care manager if needed. It is particularly important to continually evaluate all medications prescribed by other practitioners and assess each for possible long-term side effects, dependency, or drug-drug interactions. Particular attention should be given to the level of chronic pain and sleep disturbance, self-medication with alcohol or substances, chronic use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (which can contribute to rebound headaches or pain), chronic use of sedative-hypnotic agents, chronic use of narcotic pain medications, and the impact of war-related health concerns on social and occupational functioning.
Because the clinical definition of an acute concussion/mTBI does not include symptoms, time course, or impairment, there is currently no clinically validated screening process for use months or years after injury. However, it is important to gather information about all injuries sustained during deployment, including any that resulted in loss or alteration of consciousness or loss of memory around the time of the event. If concussion injuries have occurred, the clinician should assess the number of such injuries, the duration of time unconscious, and injury mechanisms. This should be followed by an assessment of any PCS immediately following the injury event (e.g., headaches, dizziness, tinnitus, nausea, irritability, insomnia, and concentration or memory problems) and the severity and duration of such symptoms.
TREATMENT Neuropsychiatric Illnesses in War Veterans
Given the interrelationship of postwar health concerns, care needs to be carefully coordinated. Specific techniques that have been found to be helpful include scheduling regular primary care visits instead of as-needed visits, establishing care management, using good risk-communication principles, establishing a consultative step care approach that draws on the expertise of specialists in a collaborative manner (instead of immediately referring the patient to a specialist and relying on the specialist to provide care), and having behavioral health support directly within primary care clinics (both for referrals and to provide education and support to primary care professionals prescribing treatment for depression or PTSD).
It is important not to implicitly or explicitly convey the message that physical or cognitive symptoms are psychological or due to “stress.” Even if depression or anxiety plays a large role in the etiology of physical health symptoms, the treatment approach should be designed within a patient-centered primary care structure, and referrals should be managed from within this framework. For example, it might help to explain that the primary goal of referral to a mental health professional is to improve sleep and reduce physiologic hyperarousal, which in turn will help with treatment of war-related chronic headaches, concentration problems, or chronic fatigue. If, however, the primary care professional conveys the message that the cause of headaches or concentration problems is anxiety or depression, and this conflicts with the patient’s own viewpoint, then this could damage therapeutic rapport and in turn exacerbate the symptoms.
Specific questions related to military service (Table 471e-2) combined with screening for depression, PTSD, and alcohol use disorders (Table 471e-3) should be a routine part of care for all veterans. A positive screen for depression or PTSD should prompt follow-up questions related to these disorders (or use of a longer screening tool such as the nine-question Patient Health Questionnaire or National Center for PTSD Checklist), as well as risk assessment for suicide or homicide. It is important to assess the impact of depression or PTSD symptoms on occupational functioning and interpersonal relationships.
A positive screen for alcohol misuse should prompt a brief motivational intervention that includes bringing attention to the elevated level of drinking, informing the veteran about the effects of alcohol on health, recommending limiting use or abstaining, exploring and setting goals related to drinking behavior, and follow-up and referral to specialty care if needed. This type of brief primary care intervention has been found to be effective and should be incorporated into routine practice. One way to facilitate dialogue about this topic with veterans is to point out how hyperarousal associated with combat service can lead to increased craving for alcohol as the body searches for ways to modulate this. Veterans may consciously or unconsciously drink more to help with sleep, reduce arousal, or avoid thinking about events that happened “downrange.” A key educational strategy is to help the veteran to learn that drinking to get to sleep actually damages sleep architecture and makes sleep worse (e.g., reduces rapid eye movement [REM] sleep initially followed by rebound REM activity and early morning wakening).
SPECIFIC TREATMENT STRATEGIES FOR PTSD AND COMORBID DEPRESSION
PTSD and depression are highly comorbid in combat veterans, and the evidence-based treatments are similar, involving antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or both. Psychoeducation that assists veterans to understand that their symptoms of PTSD have a basis in adaptive survival mechanisms and skills they exhibited in combat can facilitate therapeutic rapport. Remaining hypervigilant to threat, being able to shut down emotions, being able to function on less sleep, and using anger to help focus and control fear are all adaptive beneficial survival skills in a combat environment. Therefore, PTSD for warriors is both a medical disorder and a set of reactions that have their roots in the physiologic adaptation and skills they successfully applied in combat.
It is important to know that combat is not the only important trauma in a war-zone environment. Rape, assault, and accidents also occur. Rape or assault by a fellow service member, which affects a greater number of women veterans, but also occurs in men, can be particularly devastating because it destroys the vital feeling of safety that individuals derive from their own unit peers in a war environment.
The treatments for PTSD considered by most consensus guideline committees to have an A level of evidence include CBTs and medications, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), with the strongest evidence from double-blind, placebo-controlled studies for sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine (of which paroxetine and sertraline received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for PTSD). (See Table 466-3 for recommended dosages.) Prazosin has also gained very strong evidence recently through randomized placebo-controlled studies for its effectiveness in controlling nightmares as well as global PTSD symptoms, through modulation of the physiologic processes associated with PTSD.
CBT interventions include narrative therapy (often called “imaginal exposure”), in vivo exposure focused on retraining the body not to react to stimuli related to traumatic reminders (e.g., a crowded mall), and techniques to modulate physiologic hyperarousal (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation). A number of complementary alternative medicine approaches including acupuncture, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and massage are also being used in PTSD. Although not evidence-based treatments per se, if they facilitate a relaxation response and alleviation of hyperarousal or sleep symptoms, they can be considered useful adjunctive modalities.
There have been no head-to-head comparisons of medication compared with psychotherapy for treatment of PTSD. It is reasonable for primary care clinicians to consider initiating treatment for mild to moderate PTSD symptoms with an SSRI and to refer patients to a mental health professional if there are more severe symptoms, significant comorbidity, safety concerns, or limited response to initial treatment. All PTSD treatments are associated with a sizable proportion of individuals who fail to respond adequately, and it is often necessary to add modalities or switch treatment. SNRIs may be useful alternatives to SSRIs if there has been nonresponse or side effects with SSRIs or if there is comorbid pain (duloxetine, in particular, has indications for pain). Both SSRIs and SNRIs can increase anxiety initially; patients should be warned about this possibility, and treatment should be initiated with the lowest recommended dose (or even one-half of the lowest dose for a few days) and gradually increased thereafter. Antidepressants also are likely to be useful in comorbid depression, which is common in veterans with PTSD. All antidepressants have potential drug-drug interactions that must be considered.
Many other medications have been used in PTSD, including tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, atypical antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants. In general, these should be prescribed in conjunction with psychiatric consultation because of their greater side effects and risks. Benzodiazepines, in particular, should be avoided in the treatment of PTSD. Studies have shown that they do not reduce core PTSD symptoms, are likely to exacerbate substance use disorders that are common in veterans with PTSD, and may produce significant rebound anxiety and anger. Individuals with PTSD often report symptomatic relief upon initiation of a benzodiazepine, but this is generally short lived and associated with a high risk of tolerance and dependence that can worsen recovery. Atypical antipsychotics, which have gained widespread popularity as adjunctive treatment for depression, anxiety, or sleep problems, have significant long-term side effects, including metabolic effects (e.g., glucose dysregulation), weight gain, and cardiovascular risks.
Sleep disturbance should be addressed initially with sleep hygiene education, followed by consideration of an antihistamine, trazodone, low-dose mirtazapine, or nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotic such as zolpidem, eszopiclone, or zaleplon. However, the nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics should be used with caution in veterans because they can lead to tolerance and rebound sleep problems similar to those seen with benzodiazepine use.
TREATMENT STRATEGIES FOR CONCUSSION/mTBI AND POSTDEPLOYMENT POSTCONCUSSIVE SYMPTOMS
Concussion/mTBI is best treated at the time of injury with education and rest to allow time for the brain to heal and protect against a second impact syndrome (a rare but life-threatening event involving brain swelling that can occur when a second concussion occurs before the brain has adequately healed from an initial event). Randomized trials have shown that education regarding concussion that informs the patient of what to expect and promotes the expectation of recovery is the most effective treatment in preventing persistent symptoms.
Once service members return from deployment and seek care for postwar health problems, treatment is largely symptom focused, following the principles of patient-centered and collaborative care models. Cognitive rehabilitation, which is very useful in moderate and severe TBI to improve memory, attention, and concentration, has generally not been shown to be effective for mTBI in randomized clinical studies, although consensus groups have supported its use.
General recommendations for the clinical management of persistent, chronic PCS include treating physical and cognitive health problems based on symptom presentation, coexisting health problems, and individual preferences; and addressing coexisting depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, or other factors that may be contributing to symptom persistence. Headache is the most common symptom associated with concussion/mTBI, and the evaluation and treatment of headache parallels that for other causes of headache (Chaps. 21 and 447). Stimulant medications for alleviating neurocognitive effects attributed to concussion/mTBI are not recommended. Clinicians should be aware of the potential for cognitive or sedative side effects of certain medications that may be prescribed for depression, anxiety, sleep, or chronic pain.
Treatment of neuropsychiatric problems must be coordinated with care for other war-related health concerns, with the goal of treatment to reduce the severity of symptoms, improve social and occupational functioning, and prevent long-term disability. Understanding the occupational context of war-related health concerns is important in communicating with veterans and developing a comprehensive treatment strategy.