Medication Relief for Nightmares Associated With PTSD

Updated on December 2, 2017
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Lori Colbo is a certified mental health peer counselor. She shares information found in research and personal experience.

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PTSD Nightmares and Flashbacks

For those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares can be a reign of terror, disturbing one's sleep and pushing one into a downward spiral, suicidal ideation, and fear of sleeping.

PTSD nightmares are so vivid, it's as though the actual experience is happening in the here and now. According to the National Center for PTSD, the nightmares may be a reliving of the trauma or have similar elements to the trauma. What adds to this is that those who have them are helpless and powerless to stop them while they are happening.

I have an acquaintance who is a veteran with PTSD and clinical depression. Several years ago, he was in a VA mental health unit for his disorder. His roommate was a Viet Nam vet who had a wicked case of PTSD. When they went to bed at night, soon after this unfortunate gentleman went to sleep, he began tossing and turning and thrashing around. He started mumbling in a fearful way, this escalated into yelling and screaming, pretending he was shooting and actually got out of bed, still in the nightmare, and reliving his war traumas. He would slug and beat things and show intense terror, then aggression. You can imagine my friend was quite frightened to have this roommate, yet at the same time, he felt great sympathy and empathy for him. It is an extreme example of how torturous and vivid the nightmares can be.

Flashbacks occur while one is awake. During a flashback, the person is reliving the trauma. Dr. Frank Orchberg explains flashbacks this way, "The flashback is a traumatic memory that takes place while you're awake and that has the sensation and the feeling that it's happening now. You don't have a time sense with a flashback...The difference between a flashback and a hallucination is that the flashback is the recreation of something that actually happened. The hallucination would be a voice that wasn't in your past and that tells you things or a smell that doesn't go back to a certain memory."

The Good News

There is good news for those suffering from PTSD nightmares.

First, PTSD nightmares tend to lessen as the years go by.

Second, there is medication that can intercept those nightmares before they happen. The brand name of the medication is Minipress. The pharmaceutical name is Prazosin. Prazosin is actually a blood pressure medication but has been found to effectively stop or reduce nightmares associated with PTSD.

A few years ago I shared with a mental health professional in a hospital about the horrors of my frequent nightmares. She said to me, "You know, there is medication to help with that." I was stunned. I had been suffering from PTSD for about ten years and not one doctor or psychiatrist ever told me about this or prescribed it. The next time I saw my doctor he put me on it right away. I found tremendous relief. I went back on it last year, unfortunately, after a long season of reprieve. It has greatly reduced my nightmares.

How Prazosin Works

PTSD is an anxiety disorder. Anxiety caused by PTSD is very intense. Because of the extreme anxiety levels, the body produces a large amount of adrenaline. Prazosin blocks much of the effects of adrenaline. It will reduce the nightmares and allow for more restful, uninterrupted sleep, and may even reduce anxiety during wakefulness.

Possible Side Effects of Prazosin

Most people don't suffer many side effects from Prazosin. However, the most common side effects are:

  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
  • Loss of strength
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Sleepiness
  • Impotence
  • Urinary frequency
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle and joint pains

If you normally have low blood pressure, caution and close monitoring are needed. Mixing Prazosin with certain medications is not advisable so check with your doctor and/or pharmacist.

Prazosin cannot be taken with the drug Trazadone as it is known to cause a rare side effect called Priapism (sustained painful erection). If this happens seek medical attention immediately.

How Effective Is Prazosin With PTSD Nightmares?

Although many have astounding results with Prazosin, not all people experience such complete relief from PTSD nightmares. I occasionally have unpleasant dreams, what I would call bad dreams, not nightmares. They are not the same vivid, gory nightmares that I had before I started on the medication. The "bad dreams" most often are not related to the trauma. Just unpleasant life issues we all experience.

Prazosin is not a cure and it is important to work with a therapist who has experience in treating this disorder. Prazosin will allow you an easier time in your healing journey if you use it in combination with therapy.

A Soldier Speaks About PTSD

© 2011 Lori Colbo

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    • fucsia profile image

      fucsia 6 years ago

      Interesting argument that I did not know. Thank for this great Hub.

    • lambservant profile image
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      Lori Colbo 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Thanks again Dr. Bill for your feedback. It's good to hear that after all these years, I just may know a thing or two and can pass them on as they were passed on to me.

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Good HUB! You give a good description of PTSD nightmares. The information you give is very much needed. As our soldiers return from the wars we will see an increase in PTSD in this country. I take my hat off to you for convey your views. I have worked with PTSD in abused women for almost 2 decades and nightmares and flashback can turn someone's life upside down. Thanks.

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