Our military veterans sacrifice deeply to support our country, but helping them transition back to civilian life can be a challenge. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a lower percentage of soldiers dying than in previous conflicts such as World War II or the Vietnam War, many men and women return home with chronic medical problems or mental health issues. With the widespread use of prescription painkillers to control chronic pain symptoms, our military veterans who have sacrificed selflessly for the country are also at increased risk of opiate dependence.
The Scope of the Problem: Injury Among Military Veterans
More the 2.5 million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to figures from the Department of Defense. Of these, more than one-third have served multiple tours of duty. Although the death tolls are relatively low compared to the number of people serving in the wars, counterinsurgency strategies and use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have resulted in a relatively high rate of injury. In fact, up to 45% of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed benefits claims for service-related injuries.
Prescription Painkiller Use Among Military Veterans
Concerns about prescription painkiller use among military veterans have existed for years, but most studies have focused on patients in the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital system. As veterans getting services at VA hospitals are more likely to have serious medical problems, it is important to also assess the use of opiate painkillers in non-medical settings. A recent study performed by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine did just that.
The scientists used data collected from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to compare veterans to non-veterans who were matched for age, gender, and racial background. Veterans were slightly less likely to abuse prescription painkillers than non-veterans, which is not surprising given the Department of Defense’s zero tolerance policy for illicit drug use.
However, there were signs that pain pill use among veterans may go undetected by the military or medical system. For instance, due to the physical and emotional toll of their service, veterans were significantly more likely to get pain pills from friends or family members, rather than seeking their own prescription. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that military doctors have been writing more prescriptions for pain pills in recent years, with number of prescriptions quadrupling from 2001 through 2009. Thus, veterans who initially got prescription opiates from a doctor may be struggling with addiction and getting pills from friends or family members to fulfill their craving to use.
Impact of Military Service on Treatment for Pain Pill Abuse
Of course, while military veterans are no different from civilian patients in many ways, we must provide them with humane and individualized long term treatment in order to return these individuals to a healthy and happy life. In particular, veterans tend to have higher rates of co-occurring mental health problems than the general civilian population. One study found that 1 in 4 returning veterans had some sort of cognitive or mental health problem, and 11% misused prescription drugs. Doctors will also want to consider ongoing medical problems related to head trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other injuries. This makes it particularly important for treatment providers to provide a unique, individualized protocol for painkiller detox and treatment for each of our military veterans who has sacrificed deeply for the country.
U.S. vets’ disability filings reach historic rate. USA Today. Retrieved on May 20, 2015.
Millions went to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, leaving many with lifelong scars. McClatchyDC. Retrieved on May 20, 2015.
DrugFacts: Substance Abuse in the Military. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved on May 20, 2015.