Many people who serve in the military come back with debilitating pain. This causes them to resort to drugs and alcohol to self-cope. A new study using the findings from Veteran Affairs health records shows that non-drug therapies can be beneficial to those battling chronic pain without the use of opioids.

The Chronic Pain of Servicemen

The VA Palo Alto Health Care System researched the VA health records of more than 140,000 Army soldiers who reported chronic pain following their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan from 2008-2014. The most common types of chronic pain were joint discomfort, back and neck problems, and other problems involving the muscles or bones. Chronic pain can lead to suicidal thoughts or substance abuse. By managing the pain with opioids high doses and a longer length of use, this can lead to addiction, overdoses, and suicide attempts. This made the leader of the study, Dr. Esther Meerwijk, feel like if non-drug therapies were good at managing pain, there would be no need for these patients to turn to drugs or alcohol.

What Happened in the Study

In the study, researchers compared service members with chronic pain who did or did not receive drug therapies. They described the links between military treatments and the long-term effects. They received drug therapies like acupuncture, dry needling, chiropractic care, massage, biofeedback, exercise therapy, cold laser therapy, electrical nerve stimulation, osteopathic spinal manipulation, ultrasonography, superficial heat treatment, lumbar supports, and traction. It was determined that soldiers with non-drug therapies were at lower risk by 35% at being diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder and self-inflicted injuries. They were also 8% less likely to develop alcohol or drug use disorders. 

Limitations of the Study

One limitation of the study was that the results were based on observational data. This means that the subject groups were different in ways that they did not measure. Another limitation is that researchers did not look at specific non-drug therapies that may have contributed to their findings. There may have been therapies they used that had no effect at all. Other researchers found that certain service members who used non-drug therapies were healthier to start off with and may be at lower risk for poor outcomes. Despite these limitations, this study shows that you do not need to use opioids for your chronic pain, but that there are other healthier alternatives to use as management tools.

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