07 Oct Opioid Pain Medication Overuse Among Military Outstrips Civilian Population
Pain management is a common reason for visits to the doctor in America. Around 25 percent of those who see the family physician for a primary care visit walk out the door with a prescription for opioid painkillers.
Opioids are a specific class of drugs that are related to other opiate medications such as heroin and morphine. Popular opioids include name brands like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and Lortab. The potent medications have been a large part of our nation’s recent epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
The problem has been shown to be widespread, affecting youth, middle-aged men and women, health care workers and even the elderly. Now, a new study finds that soldiers, too, are struggling with overuse of opioids – more so even than civilians.
A Study of Returning Combat Soldiers
The study was conducted by the research arm of the military’s Walter Reed Army hospital. In 2011 investigators surveyed an infantry brigade (2,597 soldiers) several months following their return from deployment in Afghanistan. The survey asked soldiers about any sustained injuries, frequency and severity of associated pain and any medication they were using to manage the discomfort. For the purpose of this study the investigators defined chronic pain as any pain that persisted for a minimum of three months.
Many Soldiers Report Pain and Opioid Use
The researchers compiled survey responses to get a picture of pain and opioid use among service members following deployment. Here is what they found:
- 44 percent of the soldiers said they had chronic pain
- 55.6 percent reported almost daily pain
- 51.2 percent reported pain that was moderate to severe
- 48.3 percent said they had been in pain for at least one year
- 15.1 percent of surveyed soldiers reported using opioids to control pain
- 23.2 percent had used an opioid painkiller in the past 30 days
- 57.9 percent said they’d used opioids for several days
Military Opioid Use Several Times Higher than Civilian Use
As shown above, the incidence of chronic pain among soldiers was 44 percent, a figure that is nearly double the prevalence of chronic pain within the general population (26 percent). Similarly, opioid use by the soldiers (15.1 percent) was found to be triple the level found in the general population (4 percent).
What May Be Behind Chronic Pain
Although it’s reasonable to assume that soldiers returning from duty would have more injuries causing pain than average citizens, it’s also true that not everyone experiences pain in the same way and to the same degree. Some individuals are able to tolerate chronic pain more readily than others. Prior research suggests that individual pain thresholds may be linked to specific gene variations. On the other hand, at least one study has linked deficits in vitamin D to increased risk of chronic pain.
Commenting on their findings, the researchers say that their study points to a strong need for more targeted medical follow-up as soldiers return from periods of combat duty.
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