Chronic pain tortures nearly half of returning U.S. veterans, a new study suggests, and a large number of them — as many as 15 percent — are using narcotic painkillers to manage it.
Research shows that soldiers are four times as likely to use prescription narcotics compared to the wider civilian population. Such drugs carry the risk of lifelong addiction, fatal overdose and have been linked to the nation’s epidemic levels of heroin use.
The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, represents the first survey of an entire brigade — 2,600 infantry personnel. Understanding an entire combat unit’s relationship to pain and prescription medication is a valuable benchmark for developing new standards of treatment. And the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) urgently needs new standards.
Although the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has established programs like the Opioid Safety Initiative, which identifies patients at the greatest risk of addiction and overdose and tries to help taper them off prescription opiates, it may be that science has only just begun to encounter the particular risks to veterans returning from combat.