PTSD is quite a common condition caused when people are exposed to shocking or stressful events such as accidents, serious violence, combat or sexual assault. The effects of PTSD vary, but often symptoms include being constantly on edge and unable to switch off, flashbacks and nightmares, becoming distressed at reminders of the trauma, and other psychological and physical symptoms.
PTSD is a well-recognised medical condition, and there are several treatments currently available including psychological therapy and medication. Often it is difficult for the sufferers of PTSD to realise there is something wrong that needs treatment. It is natural to be shocked or upset by an accident or other shocking event, but when things go beyond that and into intrusive, disabling symptoms that don't go away with time, that can be a sign that something more serious is going on. Sometimes PTSD sufferers don't get treatment until they have had the condition for several years.
In the new study, a group of PTSD sufferers was identified, and split into two randomly selected groups. One group was given the usual psychological therapy for PTSD and on average that treatment gave them a good reduction in the level of their symptoms. The other group was given the same therapy, but were also given a regulated dose of MDMA. With both the psychological therapy and MDMA, that group did even better, with a significantly lower level of PTSD by the end of the study.
There are of course reasons to be cautious, and PTSD sufferers should not think of this as a green light to take ecstasy as a means of self-treatment. First of all, it is just one study on a relatively small group of patients (90), and it is a long way between a first study and it being recommended medical practice to take MDMA.
Secondly, the drug given in the study was given in a controlled way at a specific dose. MDMA is a class A drug and it is illegal to possess or supply it in the UK. It cannot be prescribed by doctors, so it is very hard to dose it correctly. Partly because it is hard to know the strength of illegally supplied drugs, there are also serious health risks to taking MDMA - including the risk of death - which may turn out to be more severe than the PTSD.
Thirdly, the study did not suggest that taking MDMA by itself could reduce PTSD symptoms. Its findings suggested it worked as a catalyst to make psychological therapy work better.
Nevertheless, any potential new treatment for PTSD is encouraging news. PTSD is a nasty illness that ruins lives. After accidents especially, it is easily missed by patients and doctors alike where the obvious injury is the physical one. The more quickly psychiatric injuries like PTSD can be identified and treated, the better.