Although there is a high degree of comorbidity between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug use disorders, little is known about causal relationships between PTSD, exposure to traumatic events, and drug use disorders.
In a longitudinal study in southeast Michigan, 1007 adults aged 21 to 30 years were initially assessed in 1989 and were followed up 3 and 5 years later, in 1992 and 1994. Psychiatric disorders according to DSM-III-R criteria were measured by the National Institute of Mental Health Diagnostic Interview Schedule. To take into account temporal sequencing, the associations between PTSD, traumatic events, and drug use disorders were analyzed by using Cox proportional hazards models with time-dependent covariates.
Posttraumatic stress disorder signaled an increased risk of drug abuse or dependence (hazards ratio, 4.5; 95% confidence interval, 2.6-7.6, adjusted for sex), whereas exposure to traumatic events in the absence of PTSD did not increase the risk of drug abuse or dependence. The risk for abuse or dependence was the highest for prescribed psychoactive drugs (hazards ratio, 13.0; 95% confidence interval, 5.3-32.0). There was no evidence that preexisting drug abuse or dependence increased the risk of subsequent exposure to traumatic events or the risk of PTSD after traumatic exposure.
The results suggest that drug abuse or dependence in persons with PTSD might be the inadvertent result of efforts to medicate symptoms, although the possibility of shared vulnerability to PTSD and drug use disorders cannot be ruled out.