Pharmacological prevention and early treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Laurence Astill Wright*, Marit Sijbrandij, Rob Sinnerton, Catrin Lewis, Neil P. Roberts, Jonathan I. Bisson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common mental disorder associated with significant distress and reduced functioning. Its occurrence after a severe traumatic event and association with characteristic neurobiological changes make PTSD a good candidate for pharmacological prevention and early treatment. The primary aim for this systematic review and meta-analysis was to assess whether pharmacological interventions when compared to placebo, or other pharmacological/psychosocial interventions resulted in a clinically significant reduction or prevention of symptoms, improved functioning or quality of life, presence of disorder, or adverse effects. A systematic search was undertaken to identify RCTs, which used early pharmacotherapy (within three months of a traumatic event) to prevent and treat PTSD and acute stress disorder (ASD) in children and adults. Using Cochrane Collaboration methodology, RCTs were identified and rated for risk of bias. Available data was pooled to calculate risk ratios (RR) for PTSD prevalence and standardised mean differences (SMD) for PTSD severity. 19 RCTs met the inclusion criteria; 16 studies with adult participants and three with children. The methodological quality of most trials was low. Only hydrocortisone in adults was found to be superior to placebo (3 studies, n = 88, RR: 0.21 (CI 0.05 to 0.89)) although this was in populations with severe physical illness, raising concerns about generalisability. No significant effects were found for the other pharmacotherapies investigated (propranolol, oxytocin, gabapentin, fish oil (1470 mg DHA/147 mg EPA), fish oil (224 mg DHA/22.4 mg EPA), dexamethasone, escitalopram, imipramine and chloral hydrate). Hydrocortisone shows the most promise, of pharmacotherapies subjected to RCTs, as an emerging intervention in the prevention of PTSD within three months after trauma and should be a target for further investigation. The limited evidence for hydrocortisone and its adverse effects mean it cannot be recommended for routine use, but, it could be considered as a preventative intervention for people with severe physical illness or injury, shortly after a traumatic event, as long as there are no contraindications. More research is needed using larger, high quality RCTs to establish the most efficacious use of hydrocortisone in different populations and optimal dosing, dosing window and route. There is currently a lack of evidence to suggest that other pharmacological agents are likely to be effective.

Original languageEnglish
Article number334
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


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