Imagery rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares in sexual assault survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial

B Krakow, M Hollifield, L Johnston, M Koss, R Schrader, T D Warner, D Tandberg, J Lauriello, L McBride, L Cutchen, D Cheng, S Emmons, A Germain, D Melendrez, D Sandoval, H Prince
JAMA 2001 August 1, 286 (5): 537-45

CONTEXT: Chronic nightmares occur frequently in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but are not usually a primary target of treatment.

OBJECTIVE: To determine if treating chronic nightmares with imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) reduces the frequency of disturbing dreams, improves sleep quality, and decreases PTSD symptom severity.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: Randomized controlled trial conducted from 1995 to 1999 among 168 women in New Mexico; 95% had moderate-to-severe PTSD, 97% had experienced rape or other sexual assault, 77% reported life-threatening sexual assault, and 58% reported repeated exposure to sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.

INTERVENTION: Participants were randomized to receive treatment (n = 88) or to the wait-list control group (n = 80). The treatment group received IRT in 3 sessions; controls received no additional intervention, but continued any ongoing treatment.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Scores on the Nightmare Frequency Questionnaire (NFQ), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), PTSD Symptom Scale (PSS), and Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) at 3- and 6-month follow-up.

RESULTS: A total of 114 participants completed follow-up at 3 and/or 6 months. Comparing baseline to follow-up (n = 97-114), treatment significantly reduced nights per week with nightmares (Cohen d = 1.24; P<.001) and number of nightmares per week (Cohen d = 0.85; P<.001) on the NFQ and improved sleep (on the PSQI, Cohen d = 0.67; P<.001) and PTSD symptoms (on the PSS, Cohen d = 1.00; P<.001 and on the CAPS, Cohen d = 1.53; P<.001). Control participants showed small, nonsignificant improvements for the same measures (mean Cohen d = 0.21). In a 3-point analysis (n = 66-77), improvements occurred in the treatment group at 3-month follow-up (treatment vs control group, Cohen d = 1.15 vs 0.07 for nights per week with nightmares; 0.95 vs -0.06 for nightmares per week; 0.77 vs 0.31 on the PSQI, and 1.06 vs 0.31 on the PSS) and were sustained without further intervention or contact between 3 and 6 months. An intent-to-treat analysis (n = 168) confirmed significant differences between treatment and control groups for nightmares, sleep, and PTSD (all P<.02) with moderate effect sizes for treatment (mean Cohen d = 0.60) and small effect sizes for controls (mean Cohen d = 0.14). Posttraumatic stress symptoms decreased by at least 1 level of clinical severity in 65% of the treatment group compared with symptoms worsening or not changing in 69% of controls (chi(2)(1) = 12.80; P<.001).

CONCLUSIONS: Imagery rehearsal therapy is a brief, well-tolerated treatment that appears to decrease chronic nightmares, improve sleep quality, and decrease PTSD symptom severity.

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