SAN DIEGO, Calif. — People who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are finding relief with a single shot in the neck.
The treatment, called stellate ganglion block (SGB), has been used to treat pain for nearly a century. And in recent years, it has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with PTSD significantly.
Local anesthesia is injected near a bundle of nerves in the neck, called the stellate ganglion. These nerves are a key part of the sympathetic nervous system or our fight or flight response.
Immense trauma can send our fight or flight response into constant overdrive, disrupting sleep, causing overwhelming panic, anger attacks, chronic anxiety, nightmares, or flashbacks.
The medicine has a short-term effect, soothing and resetting overactive nerves.
“The procedure itself helps to take away those symptoms and make a person able to function normally," said Dr. John How. "You're not always on edge. Not everything is a threat."
Dr. How performs the treatment in Encinitas, California, and is part of a nationwide network of doctors with the Stella Center. Stella's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Eugene Lipov, is among the pioneers of SGB for PTSD.
"I think the most profound effects that happen – and it can happen 20 minutes after the procedure – people say they can take a deep breath, they feel like a weight on their chest has been lifted," said Dr. How.
An emergency physician, Dr. How not only performs the treatment but was a patient himself.
"It's something that really affects my community for front-line healthcare workers and first responders, and I found something that can help my community.”
Already used in the military, Stella Center is among several providers working to make the treatment accessible to more Americans.
While Dr. How says it's not a cure-all, he says 80% of patients find relief after one injection.
"Has made it so that many people have been able to take stop taking their medicines," said Dr. How. “The more people that know about this the better because it’s helping a lot of people.”
Air Force veteran Chris Jachimiec says the treatment was a game-changer in his post-traumatic stress recovery.
“In real-time, I actually felt like every muscle in my body just relaxed simultaneously," said Jachimiec. "I know my mindset has changed."
Jachimiec served in the Air Force for 20 years, causing wear and tear on his body and mind.
His brother, who was in the Marine Corps, died by suicide in 2017.
“The unit I was with was responding to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, so it was like, go, go, go. It wasn’t really a time to step back and address some of the mental anguish that I was going through, the trauma," said Jachimiec.
Within six months of his brother's death, Jachimiec would also lose two comrades to suicide. While he self-medicated with alcohol, he sought help in the military.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution," he says. "You have to find what works for you."
Jachimiec is in alcohol recovery and no longer takes medication for stress. He created an organization to support those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.
“This isn’t just for folks who served the military. Our society, in general, has gone through a lot of trauma," said Jachimiec.
While insurance covers the SGB procedure for the pain, it doesn’t cover treatment for PTSD. But that could change; lawmakers have joined doctors and patients in calling for more access.
Out-of-pocket, the treatment costs between $1,200 and $3,000. Providers like the Stella Center offer financing programs, as well as discounts and travel stipends to those who qualify.
“It does get better. It can. We all have good days, we all have bad days, we all have in different days, we all have great days," said Jachimiec. "If this unlocks something for somebody else and allows somebody to heal, then these words are absolutely worth it.”