By HOWARD ALTMAN | The Tampa Tribune
Published: May 23, 2011
Can post traumatic stress disorder, suffered by one in five service members coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq and a contributing factor in suicides, homicides and drug addiction, be treated with the wave of a few fingers?
Researchers from the University of South Florida's College of Nursing believe it can. And they are using part of a $2.1 million U.S. Army grant to prove it.
The treatment is called accelerated resolution therapy. Discovered about four years ago by a Connecticut therapist named Laney Rosenzweig, it involves a therapist rhythmically waving fingers in front of a client's face to induce eye movements similar to those occurring during the deepest part of sleep.
Dissatisfied with other eye-movement therapies she deemed too passive, Rosenzweig says she "discovered something kind of revolutionary" — replacing mental images that can trigger post traumatic stress with other images.
"I call it voluntary memory/image replacement," she says. "If you go back and change the images from the trauma and they are gone, there is nothing to be triggered to."
The therapy came to the attention of USF researchers courtesy of the mother of Kevin Kip, head of research for the College of Nursing.
Kip says his mother knew he was looking for "novel methods" to treat psychological trauma. A few years ago, she read an article in a Connecticut newspaper and forwarded it to him.
Now, USF is poised to help determine if accelerated resolution therapy is a worthy treatment for those suffering as a result of their service.
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For years, Jim Lorraine would "jump out of my skin" if suddenly approached on his right side.
The trauma was the result of a bad auto accident in 1981 and compounded by being an Air Force trauma nurse treating patients in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere.
But then Lorraine, who retired in 2005 as a lieutenant colonel, experienced something that would change his life.
About seven months ago, Lorraine, then the director of the U.S. Special Operations Command's Care Coalition, was asked by Carrie Elk, one of the therapists studying the therapy, if he knew of any service members suffering from post traumatic stress disorder who might be looking for a treatment.
As director of an organization nationally recognized as a leader in helping wounded, ill and injured service members and their families, Lorraine says he wanted to check out the therapy first before recommending anyone take part.
"I was skeptical," he says. "Is this a snake oil salesman?"
So he sat down with Rosenzweig and underwent the treatment.
After about 90 minutes, he says, he couldn't recall the traumatic scene that caused him to react so strongly. So he recommended the therapy to some wounded special operations force members. It worked for them, as well.
Now Lorraine is a believer.
"I would recommend the treatment," Lorraine says.
If treating PTSD by waving fingers to induce eye movements sounds strange to you, it did to Elk, too.
Elk has a practice in Lutz and also works with Military OneSource, a Department of Defense program aimed at helping active-duty, Guard and Reserve service members and their families.
In August, introduced through mutual associates, Kip asked Elk to check out USF's trauma program and see Rosenzweig in action.
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"I was very skeptical," Elk says. "At that time, I had been in the field of mental health since 1991, and to think that something could work so quickly just didn't seem reasonable to me."
Despite her doubts, Elk tried the therapy with one of her patients. The results, she says, were so good that she underwent the training herself, became certified to practice the technique and joined USF as an assistant professor, becoming the College of Nursing's military liaison and the study's co-investigator.
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The prevalence of PTSD has the Army looking for ways to treat it.
"Because of the increasing concern over PTSD among our military members, this type of study is of interest to the Army," says Ashley Fisher, portfolio manager at the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center in Fort Detrick, Md. "If proven to be helpful, this therapy could better help veterans reintegrate back into society and improve their overall quality of life."
The center, which oversees the grant for the Army, reviewed the proposal "to ensure it was militarily relevant and technically valid/feasible prior to award," Fisher said.
In recent years, awareness of PTSD in the military has heightened, as well as attention paid to factors that cause it, says Maj. Ted Brown, preventive medicine physician at U.S. Central Command.
"As our focus is what is happening in theater, we have little input regarding research efforts" in the continental United States, Brown wrote in an email. He said he couldn't comment on the merits of the new treatment.
Last year, the Veterans Administration treated about 410,000 cases of PTSD, says Carri-Ann Gibson, chief of special programs for mental health and behavioral sciences at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Nationwide, about 20 percent of those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq reported symptoms of PTSD, she says.
Gibson says she can't comment about accelerated resolution therapy because "it is not a VA endorsed therapy."
"For me as physician, I need to make sure the treatment I am providing is well supported by scientific evidence," says Gibson. "The research has to be sound and strong."
The VA uses two therapies two treat PTSD — prolonged exposure and cognitive processing — both more intensive and lengthy than the new therapy being studied at USF.
Kip and Elk understand that the novelty of the treatment makes it difficult for the mental health community to talk about.
That's why they are conducting the study, which Kip integrated into a grant for the study of therapies dealing with trauma, mild traumatic brain injury and general health.
The study will be open to veterans who are not receiving health treatment for their disorder. Researchers will recruit 80 veterans, half of whom will be in a control group before undergoing the therapy.
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Kip says he hopes to get final approval and begin the study by July and complete it before the deadline next March.
Lorraine says he hopes the study helps persuade the medical establishment that the treatment works.
"If this can work on someone the therapist never met and address something 30 years old in an hour and a half," he says, "imagine what you can do on the battlefield with someone you know."
If you are a veteran of Afghanistan or Iraq and are interested in taking part in the study, contact the USF College of Nursing at 813-97-9310.