Our nation’s military personnel deserve the best life has to offer for sacrificing time away from their families and putting their lives on the line on a near-daily basis. Unfortunately, far too many instead suffer chronic pain and crippling addition to narcotic pain killers upon returning home, research shows.
Led by Lt. Cmdr. Robin Toblin, a clinical research psychologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., a recent study surveyed confidential surveys completed by nearly 2,600 US soldiers serving with the same infantry brigade. The results are striking:
- Some 44 percent of the members of the infantry brigade reported chronic pain for at least three months after returning to the US after serving tours of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. That figure is nearly double the 26-percent rate among civilians suffering chronic pain.
- Soldiers are nearly four times more likely than civilians to treat their chronic pain with prescription narcotics – 15 percent of the soldiers surveyed within the final month of the study phase, compared to four percent of civilians.
- Combat injuries are a primary cause of chronic pain among returning soldiers, with victims nearly three times more likely to report chronic pain and twice as likely to take narcotic painkillers as their fellow soldiers who had not suffered a combat injury.
- Soldiers who suffer depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are twice as likely as their fellow soldiers to report chronic pain.
- Among the soldiers reporting chronic pain in the study, nearly half (48 percent) said their pain had lasted a year or longer and 55 percent said they suffered daily or constant pain.
“This gives us the first complete snapshot of an entire battalion. It really highlights the extent of the problem the Department of Defense is presented with, in terms of better managing pain,” said Dr. Wayne Jonas, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and president and CEO of Samueli Institute, a non-profit health research organization. He noted that many of these soldiers go untreated or undertreated in part because of rampant peer pressure.
“In the military, pain is seen as a sign of weakness so many people don’t report it,” Jonas told reporters “It’s being undertreated, and it’s being treated too often using medications that aren’t meant to be used on a long-term basis.”
Researchers encourage soldiers to report and get treated for chronic pain, and urge military physicians and other healthcare providers to work to improve diagnosis and pain management procedures. They note that 44 percent of soldiers in the study who reported use of narcotic painkillers said they had little to no pain during the previous month. While this may imply that the medications are working to relieve pain it may also suggest that soldiers are taking these painkillers needlessly, boosting an addiction risk.
Researchers lauded the US Department of Defense for considering alternative pain management solutions including acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and music therapy to complement or even replace treatment with narcotic painkillers when possible and appropriate.