Editorial: Management of veterans' pain, both mental and physical, is challenge

Dec. 03, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

Once they return from war, U.S. combat veterans are often exposed to another battle at home.

A report from The Wall Street Journal last month revealed that Veterans Health Administration prescriptions for painkillers have nearly doubled since 2003, and with those increasing prescriptions, problems arise for combat veterans who often suffer from the mental pains of war.

"A study by a VA researcher found that veterans with PTSD were nearly twice as likely to be prescribed opioids as those without mental-health problems," the Journal reported. "They were more likely to get multiple opioid painkillers and to get the highest doses. Veterans with PTSD were more than twice as likely to suffer bad outcomes like injuries and overdoses if they were prescribed opioid painkillers, the study found."

It's a sad state of affairs and a double-edged sword.

Soldiers returning from battle are often suffering from physical pain, usually from an injury sustained in the country's service. Not treating that pain effectively would be cruel.

But many returning from battle are also suffering from a different kind of pain — an emotional pain that isn't always discussed — and, because of their tough exterior, that pain is often hidden from view.

The Journal reported that 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans under VA care have PTSD according to the VA's own numbers. And more than half of those suffer chronic pain.

But the mix of highly-addictive opioid painkillers with someone suffering from a mental illness such as PTSD can be too much.

According to Justice for Vets, a group dedicated to keeping veterans out of jail, "Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related mental illness. Left untreated, mental health disorders common among veterans can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system."

Our veterans deserve better.

The Veterans Health Administration responded to The Wall Street Journal piece by saying it is looking for alternatives to opioids for veterans with chronic pain.

But improvement of mental health treatment should be job one.

With nearly a third of those returning from war reporting PTSD, it could be a bigger battle than the wars in which they fought.