Early intervention may prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized pilot civilian study with modified prolonged exposure

Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Dec 1;72(11):957-63. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.06.002. Epub 2012 Jul 4.


Background: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major public health concern with long-term sequelae. There are no accepted interventions delivered in the immediate aftermath of trauma. This study tested an early intervention aimed at modifying the memory to prevent the development of PTSD before memory consolidation.

Methods: Patients (n = 137) were randomly assigned to receive three sessions of an early intervention beginning in the emergency department compared with an assessment only control group. Posttraumatic stress reactions (PTSR) were assessed at 4 and 12 weeks postinjury and depression at baseline and week 4. The intervention consisted of modified prolonged exposure including imaginal exposure to the trauma memory, processing of traumatic material, and in vivo and imaginal exposure homework.

Results: Patients were assessed an average of 11.79 hours posttrauma. Intervention participants reported significantly lower PTSR than the assessment group at 4 weeks postinjury, p < .01, and at 12 weeks postinjury, p < .05, and significantly lower depressive symptoms at week 4 than the assessment group, p < .05. In a subgroup analysis, the intervention was the most effective at reducing PTSD in rape victims at week 4 (p = .004) and week 12 (p = .05).

Conclusions: These findings suggest that the modified prolonged exposure intervention initiated within hours of the trauma in the emergency department is successful at reducing PTSR and depression symptoms 1 and 3 months after trauma exposure and is safe and feasible. This is the first behavioral intervention delivered immediately posttrauma that has been shown to be effective at reducing PTSR.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00895518.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Implosive Therapy / methods*
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pilot Projects
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / prevention & control*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Treatment Outcome

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00895518