Should You Try EMDR for PTSD? A Review of the Research Evidence
EMDR is touted as an effective and fast acting therapy for the treatment of PTSD – but is it right for you, especially considering that no one really understands how or why it really works?
To help you make up your mind, here's a quick review of the basics of EMDR treatment and a presentation of the findings of some major research studies on EMDR for PTSD.
What Is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy which is used to help people feel less anxiety, stress and depression after a traumatic experience.
During an EMDR session, a person will remember and visualize a traumatic memory for a short period of time (30 seconds) while simultaneously completing a muscle movement, such as moving the eyes back and forth to follow a moving finger. With repetition, this exercise reduces the feelings of distress that accompany traumatic memories.
While researchers can’t yet say how or why EMDR works to reduce trauma anxiety, they suspect that the process disrupts the storage of memories and allows for a reformation of these memories without the negative emotional and physical reactions that had previously been intertwined with the experience of remembering.
Treatment of anxiety associated with a single traumatic episode may require only 1-3 session. Treatment of more complex or lasting traumatic experiences likely requires a longer course of treatment.1
Research Evidence Supporting the Use of EMDR for PTSD
A Large PTSD Literature Review Study
A 2007 Cochrane review study of 33 controlled clinical trials on PTSD found the following therapies effective in the treatment of PTSD
- Individual exposure therapy/trauma focused CBT
- Group exposure therapy/trauma focused CBT
- Stress management therapy
Other types of therapies, such as psychodynamic counseling, supportive therapy, non directive counseling and hypnotherapy were not found as effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD.2
Two Studies on the Effectiveness of EMDR for Rape Victims with PTSD
- A study which compared the effectiveness of prolonged exposure therapy and EMDR for rape victims with PTSD found no significant differences in the effectiveness of either treatment. Both were considerably more effective than no treatment in reducing the severity of PTSD symptoms.3
- A study on 62 women with rape related PTSD symptoms of avoidance found that EMDR and prolonged exposure therapy worked about equally as well in reducing avoidance coping symptoms.4
A Study Measuring PTSD Symptoms 15 Months after Treatment with EMDR
32 people diagnosed with PTSD were provided with three 90 minute EMDR sessions. After 15 months post treatment, 84% of the study participants no longer met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis and there was a sustained 68% reduction in PTSD symptoms.5
A Study on the Effectiveness of EMDR for Children with PTSD
This study compared the effectiveness of EMDR versus a wait list control on 27 children between 6 and 12 years old with persistent PTSD symptoms following car accidents.
- Prior to treatment with EMDR all children reported at least 2 PTSD symptoms as measured by the Child Post-Traumatic Stress-Reaction Index.
- After 4 sessions of EMDR over a 6 week period only 25% of children in the treatment group still presented with at least 2 PTSD symptoms.
- In contrast, all (100%) of the children in the wait-list control group still presented with 2 or more PTSD symptoms after that same 6 week waiting period
- Gains made by children in the EMDR group endured at check-ups at 3 and 12 months post study
Based on the results, the study authors conclude that EMDR is a viable treatment for the treatment of PTSD in children.6
Based on current evidence, EMDR seems as effective as other evidence based treatments for PTSD, such as prolonged exposure therapy and other trauma CBT and exposure therapies.
EMDR is a valid and effective option for the treatment of PTSD.
- SAMHSA: EMDR, Intervention Summary
- Cochrane Reviews: Psychological treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Prolonged Exposure versus Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD rape victims.
- Avoidant coping and treatment outcome in rape-related posttraumatic stress disorder.
- Fifteen-month follow-up of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder and psychological trauma.
- A wait-list controlled pilot study of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms from motor vehicle accidents.
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