Effect of Prolonged Exposure Therapy Delivered Over 2 Weeks vs 8 Weeks vs Present-Centered Therapy on PTSD Symptom Severity in Military Personnel: A Randomized Clinical Trial

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Abstract

Importance

Effective and efficient treatment is needed for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in active duty military personnel.

Objective

To examine the effects of massed prolonged exposure therapy (massed therapy), spaced prolonged exposure therapy (spaced therapy), present-centered therapy (PCT), and a minimal-contact control (MCC) on PTSD severity.

Design, Setting, and Participants

Randomized clinical trial conducted at Fort Hood, Texas, from January 2011 through July 2016 and enrolling 370 military personnel with PTSD who had returned from Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. Final follow-up was July 11, 2016.

Interventions

Prolonged exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy involving exposure to trauma memories/reminders, administered as massed therapy (n = 110; 10 sessions over 2 weeks) or spaced therapy (n = 109; 10 sessions over 8 weeks); PCT, a non–trauma-focused therapy involving identifying/discussing daily stressors (n = 107; 10 sessions over 8 weeks); or MCC, telephone calls from therapists (n = 40; once weekly for 4 weeks).

Main Outcomes and Measures

Outcomes were assessed before and after treatment and at 2-week, 12-week, and 6-month follow-up. Primary outcome was interviewer-assessed PTSD symptom severity, measured by the PTSD Symptom Scale–Interview (PSS-I; range, 0-51; higher scores indicate greater PTSD severity; MCID, 3.18), used to assess efficacy of massed therapy at 2 weeks posttreatment vs MCC at week 4; noninferiority of massed therapy vs spaced therapy at 2 weeks and 12 weeks posttreatment (noninferiority margin, 50% [2.3 points on PSS-I, with 1-sided α = .05]); and efficacy of spaced therapy vs PCT at posttreatment.

Results

Among 370 randomized participants, data were analyzed for 366 (mean age, 32.7 [SD, 7.3] years; 44 women [12.0%]; mean baseline PSS-I score, 25.49 [6.36]), and 216 (59.0%) completed the study. At 2 weeks posttreatment, mean PSS-I score was 17.62 (mean decrease from baseline, 7.13) for massed therapy and 21.41 (mean decrease, 3.43) for MCC (difference in decrease, 3.70 [95% CI,0.72 to 6.68]; P = .02). At 2 weeks posttreatment, mean PSS-I score was 18.03 for spaced therapy (decrease, 7.29; difference in means vs massed therapy, 0.79 [1-sided 95% CI, −∞ to 2.29; P  = .049 for noninferiority]) and at 12 weeks posttreatment was 18.88 for massed therapy (decrease, 6.32) and 18.34 for spaced therapy (decrease, 6.97; difference, 0.55 [1-sided 95% CI, −∞ to 2.05; P  = .03 for noninferiority]). At posttreatment, PSS-I scores for PCT were 18.65 (decrease, 7.31; difference in decrease vs spaced therapy, 0.10 [95% CI, −2.48 to 2.27]; P = .93).

Conclusions and Relevance

Among active duty military personnel with PTSD, massed therapy (10 sessions over 2 weeks) reduced PTSD symptom severity more than MCC at 2-week follow-up and was noninferior to spaced therapy (10 sessions over 8 weeks), and there was no significant difference between spaced therapy and PCT. The reductions in PTSD symptom severity with all treatments were relatively modest, suggesting that further research is needed to determine the clinical importance of these findings.

Trial Registration

clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT01049516

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