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Opioid Use in U.S. Soldiers, Alarming Rates of Chronic Pain in Vets

The Veteran’s Administration (VA) hasn’t received a lot of praise over the last several years. From misplaced paperwork to vets being denied the medical care they deserve, the VA dropped the ball somewhere along the line.

As if that weren’t enough, the medical institution is now drawing fire for its instrumental role in creating of an opiate addiction of epic proportions among veterans.

VA Pill-Pushers?

According to a study published in the latest JAMA Internal Medicine journal, military soldiers returning to America suffer chronic pain and use prescription opiates at far higher rates than civilians. In fact, the VA is now prescribing 270 percent more opiate painkillers to vets than it was just 12 years ago. There are even cases where VA doctors prescribed opiates to known drug abusers, leading to multiple fatal and non-fatal overdoses.

“We were surprised by the percentages,” said Robin Toblin, a psychologist at the Walter Reed Institute of Research and lead author of the study.

Details of the Study

Three months after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Army researchers surveyed 2,597 soldiers. Out of that group, 1,131 vets admitted to experiencing chronic pain.

Important takeaways from the study include:

  • Narcotic pain medications are likely being over- or unnecessarily prescribed among the VA’s network of doctors.
  • Rates of chronic pain were much higher among soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, though they were not at a higher risk of abusing opiates.
  • Less than a quarter of the vets interviewed had a valid prescription for opiate pain medications.
  • The majority of participants admitted to using opiates “several days” over the last month, while a smaller number of soldiers take them every day.

Additional Data

Researchers also studied a small group of infantry soldiers recently home from Afghanistan. Approximately 44 percent reported experiencing chronic pain for at least three months, with 15 percent using opiates for pain management.

That number is in stark contrast with the civilian population. By comparison, an estimated 26 percent of American civilians admit to suffering from chronic pain, with only 4 percent relying on opiates for relief.

Vets in Danger of Developing Addiction

Prescriptions for four opiates—hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, and morphine—have skyrocketed by 270 percent over the past 12 years, according to data compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The number of narcotic pain pills dispensed by the VA far outpaced its growth in patients. Despite regulations in place, VA doctors continue to prescribe more opiates than ever.

Help is Here: If you or someone you care about needs help with prescription pill abuse, call our toll-free helpline at and speak to a recovery professional.