VA to Address Pain in Veterans, Military Personnel

Research Will Focus on Drug-Free Treatments

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Government to Research Drug-Free Treatments for Pain in Veterans. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 13 research projects conducted over the next 5 years, the Veterans Administration (VA) will devote about $21.7 million to find drug-free ways to help veterans, military personnel, and their families manage pain from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug abuse, and sleep disorders.

Lending the VA’s Health Services Research and Development Division some heavy-duty funding and scientific help in the pain management research will be the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The research will be conducted at academic institutions and VA medical centers across the nation.

“Pain is the most common reason Americans turn to complementary and integrative health practices,” said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., Director of NCCAM in a press release. “The need for nondrug treatment options is a significant and urgent public health imperative. We believe this research will provide much-needed information that will help our military and their family members, and ultimately anyone suffering from chronic pain and related conditions.”

According to a 2011 report from the NIH’s Institute of Medicine (IOM), veterans and active duty military personnel represent a disproportionately large share of the nearly 100 million American adults who suffer from chronic pain at a cost of $635 billion per year. At least 44% of all members of the U.S. military report suffering from chronic pain after being deployed in combat, compared to 26% among the general public, according to the report.

Real Solution Will Take a ‘Cultural Transformation’

A $21.7 million research project is a good start, but the IOM report contends that lasting solution will require a “cultural transformation” in the way both the public and the medical community view and treat the problem of chronic pain in the military.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stresses that, “Unless the 'cultural transformation' called for by the IOM begins in earnest, our nation faces additional crises in the future.”

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“Many service members and veterans with pain also have combined conditions such as posttraumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injury,” states the JAMA article. “Many of them are at risk for a lifetime progression of increasing disability unless the quality, variety, and accessibility of evidenced-based 'self-management' skills are improved. Without more effective and less costly approaches to pain management, the estimated costs of care and disability to the country will approach $5 trillion.”

Drug-Free Treatments Needed

One of the main goals of the research to be conducted by the VA and NIH will be to develop treatments for pain management and elimination that do not require drugs.

Currently, about 15% of U.S. military personnel use potentially habit forming opiate drugs, like Oxycodone post-deployment, compared to only 4% of the general public, according to the JAMA report.

“Drugs such as opioids that are available to manage chronic pain are not consistently effective, have disabling side effects, may exacerbate pain conditions in some patients, and are often misused,” stated the NIH in a press release.

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that some 52 million people (20% of all Americans aged 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetimes.

“Prescription opioids are important tools for managing pain, but their greater availability and increased prescribing may contribute to their growing misuse,” said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA in a press release. “This body of research will add to the growing arsenal of pain management options to give relief while minimizing the potential for abuse, especially for those bravely serving our nation in the armed forces.”