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The U.S. Army has commissioned a study to determine whether an anesthetic injection to the neck alleviates symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—a treatment that, if proven effective, could be a big step toward easing an affliction affecting hundreds of thousands of troops who have returned from combat.

The $2 million Army study constitutes the first large-scale randomized control research into use of the shots—called stellate ganglion blocks—to treat PTSD. The injections have been used for decades for arm pain and shingles.

In recent years, some military doctors have begun treating PTSD patients, particularly Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, with the injections. The shots interrupt messages along nerve fibers that control the fight-or-flight response.

That early clinical experience has produced promising results, with troops experiencing near-immediate relief of anxiety, hyper-vigilance, social withdrawal and other symptoms, said military doctors who have administered the treatment. They include Col. Jim Lynch, command surgeon at the joint Special Operations Command-Africa, which deploys elite troops to train local forces and conduct missions in Africa.

“Once people have the shot, they get dramatically better immediately,” Dr. Lynch said. The shot isn’t a cure, he said, but eases symptoms enough to allow talk therapy, pharmaceuticals and other approaches to achieve long-term improvements.

The treatment occupies an unusual medical netherworld. Most of the doctors who have administered it said they firmly believe it works. The wider military, hewing to standard medical practice, won’t endorse the treatment without evidence from a controlled trial such as the one the Army has commissioned.

“It has yet to be proven that it really does work,” said psychologist Ron Hoover, who oversees the new PTSD study on behalf of the Army. “The Army takes a fairly conservative position about treatments or any kind of medical care. They don’t want to risk service members’ lives or experiment on them.”

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