Physical and psychological trauma can leave lasting scars on an individual. That’s what makes it so important to find effective methods to alleviate the symptoms associated with trauma.
Many people struggle to overcome trauma; its lasting effects and persistent symptoms can create obstacles that impact our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. In the past, clients seeking relief from trauma have primarily relied on psychotherapy. Now, there is a more direct solution to trauma, and it begins with treating trauma as an injury.
One innovative approach that has gained attention in recent years is the Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB). Originally developed to address pain-related issues, this procedure has demonstrated potential in treating trauma-related disorders. Keep reading to explore what the Stellate Ganglion Block is, how it works, and its applications in trauma treatment.
What Is a Stellate Ganglion Block?
The Stellate Ganglion Block is a medical procedure that involves injecting a local anesthetic into the stellate ganglion, a collection of nerve cells located at the base of the neck in the cervical sympathetic chain. This chain of nerves plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s fight-or-flight response. By blocking or disrupting the signals transmitted by these nerves, the procedure can significantly impact various physiological and psychological processes.
Using Stellate Ganglion Blocks as a Trauma Treatment
The stellate ganglion is part of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering the body’s “fight or flight” response during times of stress or danger. In cases of trauma, this response can become overactive, contributing to symptoms such as anxiety, hyperarousal, and flashbacks. The Stellate Ganglion Block works by interrupting the excessive sympathetic nerve activity, thereby reducing the intensity of the body’s stress response.
Used almost 100 years ago to treat chronic pain, SGBs are considered a safe, routine procedure when performed by a properly trained, board-certified doctor. A highly trained Stella doctor will inject a local anesthetic at the C6 and C4 (sometimes C3) vertebrae into the stellate ganglion using image-guided techniques. The process only lasts about 20 minutes and shows immediate results in the first 30 minutes after treatment.
This anesthetic blocks the transmission of nerve signals and inhibits the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter associated with the stress response. As a result, the body experiences a calming effect, which helps individuals to manage the symptoms of trauma-related disorders. Since some patients report an immediate emotional release, a therapist will respond accordingly and help you navigate any emotional discomfort.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a response to exposure to harmful situations or events. Traumatic events can happen at any age, and everyone reacts differently. You may notice the effects of traumatic situations immediately, or it may take several years to see them. Experiencing any type of trauma can impact your well-being, which makes it essential to understand the types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.
Acute trauma is often an isolated incident, such as an accident, losing a loved one, or an assault. When someone experiences similar traumatic events repeatedly, it is considered chronic trauma. Some examples include military combat, childhood abuse, homelessness, and others. Complex trauma includes both the traumatic event(s) and a person’s response to that trauma. For example, a person who experienced many years of childhood abuse may develop a mental health disorder, such as depression or PTSD as an adult.
What is a Trauma Response?
A trauma response is an individual’s reaction to a traumatic event, and it can adversely affect our quality of life, even beyond the initial experience. Any (extreme or less extreme) form of trauma can trigger a physiological reaction. Our brains choose a survival system in response to a perceived threat to help us cope. The five trauma responses include: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop.
Is Trauma the Same as PTSD?
Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not the same. A traumatic event is often time-based, while PTSD is a longer-term response that may include flashbacks and re-living the traumatic event. The criteria for PTSD include high levels of enduring distress and life impairment. Trauma doesn’t always lead directly to PTSD. But since PTSD is complex, it’s important to understand and recognize its signs.
Common Trauma Symptoms
Symptoms of trauma may include (but are not limited to):
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Difficulty concentrating
- Intrusive thoughts
- Unexplained body pain
- Mood swings
- Feeling helpless
Treating Trauma Like An Injury
Although trauma is often treated with psychotherapies, many mental health professionals recommend the use of pharmaceutical drugs or pharmacotherapies to improve a patient’s quality of life.
Biological interventions are a form of therapy that targets the symptoms of bodily injury caused by traumatic experiences. Treating symptoms’ physical source helps restore a healthy physiological function through precise medical approaches.
Stellate Ganglion Blocks were initially used as a pain management technique, particularly for conditions like complex regional pain syndrome and reflex sympathetic dystrophy. However, SGBs’ potential benefits in trauma treatment have gained significant attention. Research and clinical trials have indicated that SGBs may be a valuable intervention for various trauma-related disorders, including the conditions below.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to traumatic events. Individuals with PTSD often experience intrusive memories, nightmares, and heightened anxiety. SGBs have shown promise in reducing these symptoms by dampening the hyperactive sympathetic nervous system response associated with PTSD.
- Anxiety Disorders: Trauma can lead to chronic anxiety disorders. By blocking the stellate ganglion, SGBs can reduce the body’s overall anxiety response, decreasing fear and apprehension.
- Panic Disorders: Panic attacks, characterized by sudden and intense waves of fear, can be triggered by trauma. An SGB’s ability to modulate the sympathetic nervous system can help mitigate the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
- Depression: Trauma is a known risk factor for depression. Some studies suggest that SGBs might positively impact depressive symptoms, potentially by disrupting the cycle of stress and negative emotions.
- Insomnia: Sleep disturbances often accompany trauma-related disorders. The calming effects of an SGB could aid in improving sleep quality for individuals struggling with insomnia as a result of trauma.
Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of Stellate Ganglion Blocks in trauma treatment. While research is ongoing, preliminary findings are encouraging. For instance, a study published in 2016 showed that individuals with PTSD who received an SGB experienced a significant reduction in symptoms compared to those who received a placebo treatment.
Similarly, a study published in 2020 found that SGBs led to improved sleep and reduced symptoms of PTSD in veterans. These findings, among others, suggest that SGBs have the potential to offer a novel and promising avenue for trauma treatment.
The Stellate Ganglion Block procedure is typically performed by a trained medical professional, often an anesthesiologist or pain specialist. The steps involved in the process include:
- Preparation: The patient is positioned comfortably and their vital signs are monitored. Anesthesia may be administered to numb the injection site.
- Needle Insertion: The medical professional carefully inserts a thin needle into the stellate ganglion region using fluoroscopic guidance or ultrasound imaging.
- Injection: Once the needle is correctly positioned, a local anesthetic is injected into the stellate ganglion. The injections usually take only a few minutes.
- Observation: The patient is observed briefly after the injection to monitor for any immediate adverse reactions.
The procedure is minimally invasive and can often be performed on an outpatient basis. Some patients may require multiple injections to achieve optimal results.
Risks and Considerations
Like any medical procedure, a Stellate Ganglion Block carries certain risks and considerations. Potential hazards include infection, bleeding, nerve damage, and adverse reactions to the anesthetic. Patients must discuss their medical history, current medications, and any allergies with their healthcare provider before undergoing the procedure.
When performed by a properly trained, board-certified doctor, an SGB is considered a safe, routine procedure. Some clients experience the urge to cry or an emotional outlet immediately following the injections. Most people experience calmness, lightness, and tiredness within 30 minutes of treatment.
Finding Relief With a Stellate Ganglion Block
The Stellate Ganglion Block holds promise as a groundbreaking intervention in trauma treatment. By targeting the overactive sympathetic nervous system response that often accompanies trauma-related disorders, this procedure has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for individuals struggling with the aftermath of traumatic events. While research is ongoing, the growing body of evidence suggests that the Stellate Ganglion Block could be a valuable addition to the therapeutic options available to trauma survivors. As medical understanding advances, this innovative approach may pave the way for more effective, compassionate, and holistic trauma care.
At Plus by APN, we believe in a whole-body approach to mental and physical health, addressing trauma at the physiological, neuro-physiological, and psychological levels. We have partnered with Stella as their official partnered therapy provider. Two care plans are available to help you sustain and deepen the benefits of an SGB with psychotherapy.
Stellate Ganglion Blocks are one of many alternative healing modalities we employ, and we work with every client to develop a customized approach. Call 855.654.6595 or complete our confidential online contact form to get started with your healing journey today.
- Rae Olmsted, Kristine L et al. “Effect of Stellate Ganglion Block Treatment on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” JAMA psychiatry vol. 77,2 (2020): 130-138. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.3474
- Ryder, Gina. “What Is Trauma?” Edited by Debra Rose Wilson, Psych Central, 4 Jan. 2022, psychcentral.com/health/what-is-trauma.
- “Stellate Ganglion Block Treatment For PTSD At VA.” VHA National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships, https://www.va.gov/healthpartnerships/resources/SGBforPTSD_508.pdf