TIME medicine

Painkiller Use High Among Soldiers Returning From War, Study Finds

A soldier salutes the flag during a welcome home ceremony for troops arriving from Afghanistan on June 15, 2011 to Fort Carson, Colorado.
A soldier salutes the flag during a welcome home ceremony for troops arriving from Afghanistan on June 15, 2011 to Fort Carson, Colorado. John Moore—Getty Images

Of the 2,597 soldiers surveyed, 15% had taken opioids in the past month. Among civilians, that number is around 4%

A study published by a U.S. medical journal found that soldiers returning from war experience pain and take prescription opioids much more than civilians.

U.S. Army researchers surveyed an infantry brigade that had recently come home from Afghanistan. Of the 2,597 soldiers, 44% reported experiencing chronic pain that lasted for three months or more. 15% had taken opioids in the past month.

By contrast, the study’s authors suggest that 26% of civilians endure chronic pain, whilst 4% take opioids. Robin Toblin, who led the study, told the Los Angeles Times: “We were surprised by the percentages.”

Of the 1,131 soldiers who experienced chronic pain, nearly 14% described it as “severe”. Combat injuries were the main reason for the pain whilst rates of chronic pain were higher in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. 60 soldiers said the pain was so bad that they were taking opioids nearly every day.

The study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine noted that use and misuse of opioids, prescribed for chronic pain, has “ballooned” recently. But experts said the study didn’t answer the questions it raised about whether opioids are being correctly prescribed.

“American medicine in general is overprescribing,” said Dr Mark Edlund, a psychiatrist and pain expert who was not involved with the survey.

The study did suggest some soldiers might have been incorrectly prescribed opioids. Amongst those taking the drugs, 17 soldiers said they experienced no pain and 144 reported it as “mild”.

Painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone have faced a public backlash as addiction rates and fatal overdoses continue to increase. These drugs are considered most beneficial for short-term pain. When prescribed for chronic pain, the benefits might not exceed the risks.

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