Minimizing Painkiller Use Could Decrease Number of Veterans Addicted to Opiates

militaryA recent online Washington Post article cites the American Medical Association data that nearly half of all our combat troops returning to the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from chronic pain.  The numbers are double that of the civilian population.  Many of these returning veterans have been prescribed opioid painkillers, drugs which studies have shown to be addictive; with disabling side-effects, and which may actually exacerbate conditions of pain in some patients.

Need for Change

In late September of this year, the National Institutes of Health in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs announced the launching of a $21.7 million dollar, five-year initiative which will study alternative therapies to opioids–and their effectiveness.

The joint research program will roll-out in a series of 13 research projects, and will include studies on the use of morning light in treating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and lower-back pain; and the use of chiropractors, meditation and self-hypnosis to reduce pain.

The initiative will be funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and the Veterans Administration’s Health Services Research and Development Division.  The series of research projects will be done at VA medical centers and academic institutions across the U. S.

According to Director of the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Josephine Briggs, the magnitude of the problem for soldiers returning home is huge, and is very urgent.  She further noted that it is believed this research will provide the much-needed information to help our military and their families; and ultimately helping any person who suffers from chronic pain and its related conditions.

Veterans and Chronic Pain

A June 2014 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA) cited a 44 percent rate of chronic pain amongst members of the United States military following combat deployment.  It is an alarmingly high rate disproportionate to the 26 percent found in the general public.

Furthermore, the JAMA report noted that many of these military personnel “are at risk of a lifetime progression of increasing disability” unless there is improvement in the accessibility, quality and variety of evidence-based self-management skills.  The estimated costs of the care and disability to the nation was cited as approaching $5 trillion dollars if more effective and less costly ways of managing pain are not recognized and implemented.

Director of National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, notes that while prescription opioids are a tool for managing pain, the greater availability of the drugs and the increased prescribing potentially contributes to the growing misuse of the drugs.

Volkow further notes that the new research data will add to the “arsenal of pain management options” which, while giving relief of pain will also minimize the potential for abuse, particularly for those who have bravely served our country in the armed forces.

Research Study Overview

Under the joint initiative, the new studies undertaken will evaluate a wide range of alternatives to the addictive narcotic opioid painkillers, including the feasibility of bright morning sunlight to reduce and assist in the management of low-back pain and to help improve PTSD symptoms, mood and sleep; the use of chiropractors, mindfulness and meditation to reduce pain; the joint development of a treatment model by primary care providers, chiropractors and mental healthcare providers for  veterans with spine pain; the integration of biofeedback, relaxation, imagery, guided exercise, mindfulness meditation and weekly team meetings with medical care and physical therapy to reduce disability/improve physical function and decrease the rate of chronic opioid painkiller use by combat-injured vets with multiple traumatic injuries.

We are indebted to our veterans for their service to our country, and we owe them effective, workable and safe solutions to the mental, emotional and physical pain they suffer due to their combat-related injuries, disabilities and trauma.  Minimizing painkiller use is vital to preventing our returning soldiers from falling into the trap of opiate addiction and its consequences.