How to Help Veterans Manage Chronic Pain in Recovery 

Active duty members of the armed forces are more likely to encounter situations that put them at risk. They may experience physical, mental, or moral injury. The moral injury occurs when they are put in a position to harm or kill someone in the war. Opioids are often given to help them care for their injuries and treat them. The person can abuse them easily if they are not watched and they may end up addicted. Veterans also struggle with issues like PTSD, chronic pain, depression, and other challenges. Veterans who struggle with chronic pain management often need help dealing with it when they transition to being a civilian. 

Opioid Abuse Among Veterans

Abuse of opioids can affect veterans in many ways. The access to drugs may be easier because medics carry them for combat-related injuries abroad. As civilians, they may also find access is easier if they have friends taking them or doctors willing to prescribe opioids. Pain management is tricky for veterans because there are not many drugs that manage chronic pain as well as opioids. The addiction to opioids can become unmanageable quickly. While transitioning off the medication, they will need to find alternative methods to manage chronic pain. Some of the issues veterans need medication and support for include:

  • Migraines
  • Neck and back pain
  • A jaw pain
  • Head pain
  • Joint pain
  • Chronic fatigue or sleep disorders due to pain

Addiction to Pain Meds

Veterans who access the VA have often prescribed opioid medications for chronic pain. Some may have a few doctors prescribing medications and trying to help them deal with their mental and physical challenges others will just push out and prescribe pills. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine are the main drugs they struggle with trying to take for pain relief by find addiction takes over. The average age of people struggling with addiction to opioids ranges from young to older. The rates of abuse have gone up for younger veterans who have served several tours in a row and often suffer from mental, physical, and spiritual wounds from battle. Older veterans were not as likely to talk about their struggles and may even keep it hidden now, in spite of stigma falling away. 

Co-occurring Disorders

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases the risk of substance use disorder (SUD) significantly. Sufferers of PTSD and mental health conditions may experience prescription opioids because they may have physical injuries that cause chronic pain. Sedative-hypnotics are also prescribed for insomnia which has an addictive effect. Veterans who struggle with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders may experience chronic pain and sleep issues triggered by underlying mental health concerns. Treatment programs that don’t focus on dual diagnoses are going to miss opportunities to provide healing for veterans who struggle with physical and mental health challenges. Dual diagnosis programs offer help and healing for those who need better management of chronic pain, fewer opioids, and more focus on holistic approaches. A holistic approach should include reviewing medications regularly, group and individual therapy and working with trained specialists who understand veteran’s needs. The more specialized support they receive, the better off they are in the long journey of recovery. 

Treatment and Support for Veterans

Veterans who seek substance use disorder treatment usually have multiple disorders and challenges to work through. Dual diagnosis is when they have mental health and physical challenges to work through. Opioid treatment, heroin, alcohol use, and other drugs are just a few of the issues they face. Chronic pain management, PTSD, and other mental health disorders are also part of their programs typically upon assessment. To find proper treatment, they usually have a multi-faceted, trauma-informed approach that focuses on their empowerment and healing:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Trauma-informed care
  • Mental health support
  • Mindfulness and meditation work
  • Alternatives methods as desired

Additional Healing Opportunities

When veterans are dealing with chronic pain, they often struggle with mental and physical health challenges. They may deal with anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, and loss of hope for dreams unfulfilled. Perhaps they are on disability or cannot work the same as they did before. They may have a home life that is struggling. Healing opportunities for veterans with chronic pain need to include comprehensive support. This means looking at nature, hiking, swimming, biking,  and other ways to get them moving again that takes their focus off the pain. Exercise and nutrition are also important to help them get on track with their recovery. Family is often encouraged to participate in therapeutic work and recovery alongside them. Concerned friends, new sober friends, and colleagues are all an important part of a holistic approach to recovery with community support. Social support from the military is great if offered but it may depend on the people involved and the way they approach the individual’s recovery. Seeking support and connection is going to help while isolation can cause more suffering for people in recovery. The key is to find people who will be there and receive treatment to offer the best chance at healing possible. 

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