Children with PTSD Can Be Treated in Hours, Say Researchers in Amsterdam

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Two therapies showed positive effect in less than 4 hours for treatment of children and adolescents with PTSD.

New research shows that, with 2 specific therapies, children and adolescents with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be treated in a matter of hours.

Researchers at University of Amsterdam (UvA) and GGZ Rivierduinen (Trauma Center for Children and Youth) compared the 2 therapies, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive behavioral writing therapy (CBWT), in a study population of children and adolescents 8 to 18 years of age who had experienced a single traumatic event, such as a traffic accident, physical or sexual assault, or a traumatic loss.

EMDR and trauma-based CBT has been shown in previous studies to be successful in adults, but neither therapy has been extensively studied in children and adolescents.

While both forms of treatment confront the traumatic memory without preparation on the part of the patient, in EMDR that traumatic memory is activated while the working memory is preoccupied with an external task, such as following fingers with the eyes. In CBWT, the child, with the therapist, writes a story about the traumatic event—including all of the traumatic aspects of the memory. At the end of the treatment time, the child shares the story of the event with others who are important to him or her.

During this study, in which a total of 103 children and adolescents took part, 4 sessions were sufficient for successful treatment, on average. While EMDR showed results in less time, both forms of therapy were effective in less than 4 hours.

Using a stopwatch, Carlijn de Roos, a clinical psychologist and UvA researcher, and colleagues timed the length of both treatments, showing that EMDR reached positive effect in 2 hours, 20 minutes, on average, while CBWT reached positive effect in 3 hours, 47 minutes.

“EMDR and writing therapy were equally effective in reducing posttraumatic stress reactions, anxiety and depression, and behavioral problems,” de Roos said in a news release announcing the study results. “What's more, both proved to be brief and, therefore, cost-effective. The most important thing, of course, was that the results were lasting, as shown during a follow-up measurement 1 year later.”

According to a study that was published in The British Journal of Psychiatry in 2014, approximately 16% of children who are exposed to a trauma develop PTSD. “Children who do not get the right treatment suffer unnecessarily and are at risk of developing further problems and being re-traumatized,” de Roos continued. “The challenge for health professionals is to identify symptoms of PTSD as quickly as possible and immediately refer for trauma treatment.”

She said the study results emphasize the need for PTSD screening in children to become standard practice in the diagnosis and treatment of all psychiatric disorders, and added that it is important to conduct further research into the positive effects of EMDR and CBWT in children who have suffered from multiple traumatic experiences, as well as in children who are younger than 8 years of age.

The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

RELATED COVERAGE:

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