PTSD: Ceasing the Nightmares

In 2008, as an United States Army Veteran just back from a deployment in Afghanistan, Heather was diagnosed with PTSD. In 2009, the United States Army granted Heather a medical retirement, but it had no further help for her.

Photo from SgtMaj. Casey D. Cole, USMC (ret)

Heather, like most people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), experienced difficulty sleeping, and heightened anxiety when it comes to any interaction with other people. It progressed to the point if the activity she was planning to attend was not on base, it would not be possible for her to go.
Her husband and family were very supportive, Heather’s husband is also a veteran who has his own diagnosis of PTSD and has difficulties during different times of the year than she does.  Heather reports that the counseling the Veteran’s Administration (VA) provided to her- both individual and group – “was a joke.”

Heather’s nightmares were progressing to the point that she was not sleeping at all. She had a civilian job working on aircraft, but when she went to the VA for help, she was prescribed Valium, Vicodin, Flexeril, Percocet and Lidocaine which she states “zombified” her. Gaining weight and not wanting to interact with anyone, Heather and her husband sat down to make some hard choices.

In 2014 Heather moved to a rural area of Arizona with her husband. They left their home, their jobs and bought a home in the country where they could institute a “space barrier” from heavily civilized areas and they also began completely changing their way of life. The hypervigilance symptoms characteristic with PTSD are much less noticeable with state trust land on two sides of their property.

The changes Heather and her husband made include growing and raising most of their food and decreasing the impact that the world has on their minds and bodies. One of the biggest changes was in their medication:  When they moved to Arizona, the VA doctor in Arizona gave Heather information about how cannabis helps PTSD and referred her to a local doctor for a cannabis referral.

Heather’s experience was quite different than that of most veterans around the United States. Her physician was a contractor with the VA, rather than an employee, who was very outgoing and informed. Her diagnoses were more than what was required for a cannabis recommendation:  Having fallen out of a helicopter during her service, onto the concrete, Heather has a broken back and hip and torn knee in addition to her severe anxiety and PTSD.

When asked what forms of cannabis she uses, Heather enthusiastically replied, “ALL OF IT!” Then she went on to elaborate with the fact she makes her own tinctures, butters, oils, soaps, edibles and bath treatments. But when she smokes bud, “it levels [her] out completely.”

Heather states that the cannabis does help some with the physical pain but it doesn’t help as much as she would like. The emotional ups and downs are leveled out. In relation to the nightmares, she reports that cannabis helps her sleep, now she is able to get six hours at a time, it helps her stay asleep.

The relationship cannabis has to PTSD is one that is currently being studied. Many people report that it “levels them out,” and allows them a more peaceful sleep. But why and how? Those are some of the questions currently being investigated by Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller from the University of Pennsylvania.

On April 20, 2016, the DEA gave their blessing for Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to study cannabis and PTSD. This okayed them to purchase the cannabis for the study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Dr. Bonn-Miller with the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine is overseeing the study, with other physicians in other states also participating.

In a study performed in Israel, and presented at the Cannabinoid Conference in Bonn, Germany in 2011, the following results were found in relation to cannabis and PTSD:

Majority of PTSD patients used also the conventional medications (such as antidepressants and sedatives, pain killers etc), prescribed them by their treating physicians. Medical Cannabis (as sativa and/or indica species) was provided by several companies. The Cannabis daily dosage was in range 2-3 gr/day (containing about 20% of cannabinoids active compounds THC/CBD). In most cases a significant improvement in Quality of Life and pain scores, with some positive changes in CAPS scores was observed. Under this combine (Cannabis + conventional medications) treatment, the patients reported a discontinuation or lowering the dosage of pain killers and sedative pharmacological agents. Most of the improved PTSD patients belonged to groups with either pain and/or depression comorbidity. No exacerbations or serious adverse events were reported.

Photo from Sgt.Maj. Casey D. Cole, USMC (ret)

SgtMaj. Casey D. Cole, USMC (ret) was first diagnosed with PTSD in 1984, as an aftermath of being trapped in rubble during bombing in Beirut. In 2011, he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer — his choice of treatment for both has been cannabis. His physicians warned him of impending death within a few weeks in 2011; in October 2016 we sat down with him to discuss his miraculous recovery.

“If I have a bad nightmare at night, it’s not to where I wake up screaming, yelling, thrashing or fighting or any of that nature. But if I do have one that leaves me very unsettled, I just take one or two hits off the pipe, and I go right back to sleep and I sleep fine.”  Before cannabis treatment, Casey was up after a nightmare, there was no going back to sleep.

Nightmares as a symptom of PTSD aren’t exclusive to former military personnel. One traumatic event in a person’s life can scar generations not yet conceived in ways never imagined.  Children of Holocaust survivors of the 1940s have exhibited changes in the structure of their DNA not previously known in people who have not personally been experienced to trauma.
“Post traumatic stress disorder can be caused by any trauma such as first-hand abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing any type of violence, car accidents, personal injury, or seeing death firsthand, not only in war. Although PTSD is commonly associated with veterans at war, this group in reality only accounts for 38.2% of all diagnosed PTSD cases. The other 61.8% is majorly made up of victims of abuse or violent crime.”

When Ellie’s four-year-old father witnessed his father’s suicide, her grandfather effectively handed down the PTSD one generation. When her father acted out in his own trauma and abused her and her brother, this non-genetic disorder of the brain was to affect yet another generation: Her brother’s son passed in the same manner as his grandfather, down to the caliber of the gun.

It is not uncommon for a family to have a tendency towards PTSD. There has been recent research that indicates susceptibility to a PTSD response to trauma is possibly up to 40% genetic. In 2012 UCLA geneticists discovered two genes that appear to be linked to the development of PTSD.

SgtMaj. Cole feels that the plague of PTSD-related suicides has to stop. So much so that he testified in front of a Senate committee on Veteran Suicide in 2011 about a simple programming addition that could be made into the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ (VA) automated answering prompts that would immediately connect a veteran who is calling for help to a person who can do so. That has currently been implemented. Since this happened, the number of veteran suicides has fallen from the infamous “Twenty22Many” to twenty every day. While we all agree that is still far too many, it is less. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to thank SgtMaj. Cole for not only his service to his country, but also for his service to generations of families yet to be conceived.

We look forward to bringing our readers additional research as it is being discovered, in relation to PTSD and Cannabis.


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