Written exposure therapy may be more efficient way to treat PTSD in military personnel

Denise M. Sloan, PhD; Brian P. Marx, PhD; Patricia A. Resick, PhD
Young soldier at her desk writing in a journal
Writing may be therapeutic

Importance  Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs more commonly among military service members than among civilians; however, despite the availability of several evidence-based treatments, there is a need for more efficient evidence-based PTSD treatments to better address the needs of service members. Written exposure therapy is a brief PTSD intervention that consists of 5 sessions with no between-session assignments, has demonstrated efficacy, and is associated with low treatment dropout rates, but prior randomized clinical trials of this intervention have focused on civilian populations.

Objective  To investigate whether the brief intervention, written exposure therapy, is noninferior in the treatment of PTSD vs the more time-intensive cognitive processing therapy among service members diagnosed with PTSD.

Design, Setting, and Participants  The study used a randomized, noninferiority design with a 1:1 randomization allocation. Recruitment for the study took place from August 2016 through October 2020. Participants were active-duty military service members diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. The study was conducted in an outpatient setting for service members seeking PTSD treatment at military bases in San Antonio or Killeen, Texas.

Interventions  Participants received either written exposure therapy, which consisted of 5 weekly sessions, or cognitive processing therapy, which consisted of 12 twice-weekly sessions.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Participants were assessed at baseline and at 10, 20, and 30 weeks after the first treatment session. The primary outcome measure was PTSD symptom severity assessed with the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5 (CAPS-5). Noninferiority was defined as the difference between the 2 groups being less than the upper bound of the 1-sided 95% CI–specified margin of 10 points on the CAPS-5.

Results  Overall, 169 participants were included in the study. Participants were predominantly male (136 [80.5%]), serving in the Army (167 [98.8%]), with a mean (SD) age of 34 (8) years. Eighty-five participants were randomly assigned to written exposure therapy, with 65 (76.5%) completing all treatment sessions, and 84 to cognitive processing therapy, with 47 (54.8%) completing all treatment sessions. Findings indicated that written exposure therapy was noninferior to cognitive processing therapy, with the largest difference in change in outcome between the treatment conditions of 3.96 points on the outcome measure. The 1-sided 95% CI upper limit was less than 10 points across time points in both groups and ranged from 4.59 at week 30 to 6.81 at week 10. Within-condition effect sizes ranged from a Cohen d of 0.48 for the written exposure therapy group in the intention-to-treat analysis at week 10 to 0.95 for the cognitive processing therapy group in the per-protocol analysis at week 10, and between-condition effect size ranged from 0.06 in the intention-to-treat analysis at week 30 to 0.22 in the per-protocol analysis at week 10.

Conclusions and Relevance  In this randomized clinical trial, support was found for an effective and more efficient PTSD treatment approach for service members. Future research should determine who does and does not benefit from PTSD treatment to best maximize treatment outcomes.

Trial Registration  ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03033602

Posted on BrainLine January 13, 2022. Reviewed January 13, 2022.