WRAL Investigates

'In simple terms, I feel great:' WRAL Investigates new treatment to help veterans with PTSD

It's called the Stellate Ganglion block. Stellate is Latin for star. Ganglion is the cluster of nerves in the neck.

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Cullen Browder
, WRAL anchor/reporter

More U.S. service members have died by suicide since the War on Terror began than those who died fighting in it.

Now, a pain treatment that’s been around for almost 100 years is revolutionizing the treatment of veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

For years, the WRAL Investigates team has reported on the struggles of service members and veterans dealing with the emotional scars of military duty and their fight for mental health services.

In our latest chapter, we looked into a promising new treatment that’s actually been around for years. The treatment actually attacks trauma through a cluster of nerves in the neck.

Retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Nelson Martinez, a Purple Heart award recipient, carries the burden of multiple combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"My vehicle patrol was ambushed. They fired off RPGs and small arms fire," Martinez told WRAL Investigates about one incident that still haunts him. Injuries sent him home, but within months he was right back in the fight sustaining a traumatic brain injury from another explosion. He says he was trained to fight but not how to deal with the aftermath once he came home.

After retiring in 2018, Martinez learned to cope by staying busy with family and hunting. Still, he struggled with survivor guilt over the fellow Marines he lost in battle or to suicide.

"I feel anger. I feel sad. I feel guilty because I don’t know if I did enough to help them," he said. "I can safely say there’s not a day that I don’t think about it."

His journey for help led him to the ECPC Pain Specialists in Roanoke Rapids, northeast of the Triangle.

"I’m kind of hoping that this will lift some of that burden," he said of the new treatment. "That way I can do more of the things that I want to do and enjoy them."

Martiez didn’t want to medicate. Instead, he undergoes a 15-minute series of anesthetic shots. It’s called the Stellate Ganglion block. Stellate is Latin for star. Ganglion is the cluster of nerves in the neck.

"It's both revolutionary and one of the most promising things I've seen to treat trauma symptoms, and it's been hiding in plain sight," said Dr. Shauna Springer. "It's been around since 1926 and used for pain procedures."

Springer specializes in military post traumatic stress. As chief psychologist for the organization Stella, she prescribes the treatment.

Springer says the treatment helps open up those suffering from PTSD.

"When this medication is injected, it seems to bring this overactive fight or flight system back to a state of calm." She says, combined with mental health therapy, the injections show success in more than 75% of patients.

Springer adds the treatment isn’t just for members of the military. "This Stellate Ganglion block is for anyone who suffers from trauma symptoms," she said.

Moments after his injections, Martinez looked like he just got out of the dentist’s chair. He said, "I’m feeling great other than what they told me I was going to feel after. I feel a little bit of numbness in my ear, my neck and the right side of my face."

Days after the anesthetic wore off WRAL Investigates checked back in with the decorated veteran via Zoom. "In simple terms, I fee great," he said.

While he didn’t see an immediate "light bulb" effect like some patients, Martinez gradually felt a sense of calm. "My thoughts feel like they’re more clear, and I’m able to focus on things one at a time instead of everything racing through me head," he said.

It’s progress for a man who wants to honor his fallen brothers by working to heal himself. "If I’m able to accomplish that then I can get that enjoyment out of things I want to do and not just what I have to do."

To learn more about the Stellate Ganglion treatment and where it’s offered in North Carolina, go to stellacenter.com. Locally, the treatment is also available in Cary at www.flexogenix.com.

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