Does EMDR Really Work?

A recent review of the research suggests that although the treatment can be effective in limited situations, its methodology is a source of controversy among psychological scientists.

You may have heard about EMDR recently, or even recommended it by a friend. That’s not surprising, as there has been a great deal of press about EMDR in the last decade. The claims range from it being able to cure depression to helping people learn about past lives. EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a relatively new therapy that research has shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD. Briefly, EMDR works by having the patient recount the trauma experienced in detail, while moving his eyes back and forth in a clockwork like fashion. After several sessions, the patient experiences significantly less distress when talking or thinking about the trauma. It only has research support in use with PTSD, with most people showing significant symptom reduction after several months of treatment. EMDR is a treatment, however, that comes with a great deal of controversy. 

Does EMDR really work? The short answer is yes… kind of. There is a body of research that shows it is effective in significantly reducing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in up to 78% of patients (Carlson et al., 1998). However, numerous studies comparing EMDR to another popular treatment for PTSD, called Prolonged Exposure, show virtually no differences in effectiveness. Why is this significant, you might ask? Because Prolonged Exposure looks a lot like EMDR. Really, the only substantive difference is the lack of eye movement in Prolonged Exposure. Numerous studies have compared the effects of standard EMDR, with EMDR minus the eye movement component (Davidson and Parker, 2001). What these studies found was that there was no difference whatsoever between the two treatments, suggesting there is no benefit to moving one’s eyes back and forth. Eliminating the eye movement component, you are left with a therapy in which the patient recounts their trauma narrative repeatedly during the session, a treatment identical to Prolonged Exposure. 

The good news is that because the research shows that EMDR likely works no differently than Prolonged Exposure, it is still effective for the patients who receive it. The problematic piece of this, is the perpetuation of this treatment despite the identification of the extra, needless components. EMDR clearly does not incorporate the most up-to-date treatment methods, nor does it make use of the best psychological science has to offer. With the increased focus on evidence-based practice, the popularity of this outdated therapy highlights the number of clinicians who are basing a large portion of their practice on outdated interventions lacking strong research support. A staggering 83% of clinicians do not use exposure therapy (Zayfert et al., 2005), which is the treatment of choice for all of the anxiety disorders due to its high success rates. This frightening statistic underscores the importance of the need for patients to become informed consumers of science, and asking about their therapist’s methods and training prior to being seen as a patient. 

Carlson, J., Chemtob, C.M., Rusnak, K., Hedlund, N.L, & Muraoka, M.Y. (1998). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Treatment for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 3-24. 

Davidson, P.R., & Parker, K.C.H. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 305-316.

Zayfert, C et al. (2005). Exposure utilization and completion of cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD in a "real world" clinical practice. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18, 6, 637-645. 


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