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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is turning to alternative treatments for pain relief in light of the opioid crisis. According to the Boston Globe, the White River Junction VA Medical Center has cup 42% of its opioid prescriptions.
“It used to be most patients would be on opioids,” said hospital pain clinic supervisor Dr. Julie Franklin. “That’s not the case any longer.”
In 2014, up to 2,088 patients received opioid medication for chronic pain and 46 patients received 400 milligrams of morphine a day. In 2017, the number of patients receiving opioid medication dropped to 1,221 and only four patients receive heavier doses of morphine.
In the face of the opioid epidemic, the VA says the goal of embracing holistic treatment over opioids is meant to reduce the risk of veterans developing addiction and to help those who are suffering from addiction.
“We’ve definitely saved some lives,” said Franklin about the shift toward holistic treatment. “We’ve helped a lot of veterans.”
Chronic pain is unfortunately common among veterans. More than 50% of older veterans and 60% of those who’ve returned from service in Afghanistan and Iraq are afflicted with chronic pain.
The most common causes include battlefield injuries, nerve damage, headaches, and back ailments. Up to 80% of the American population will suffer from back pain during sometime in their life, experts say.
In the past, opioids were dispensed by medical professionals both in the VA and across the nation as the default remedy for pain. In fact, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of opioids prescribed by the VA increased by 270% between 2001 and 2013. Yet the number of patients increased by less than 40%.
This was incredibly problematic considering four out of five people suffering from heroin use disorder say their addiction began with misusing prescription painkillers.
“Because of their aggressive use of opioids, they wound up with an enormous problem,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny. Kolodny is the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “Tens of thousands of veterans ended up addicted,” he said.
But now that the VA is embracing alternative treatments for pain including pool therapy and acupuncture, opioid prescriptions have successfully reduced. Planned legislation on VA pain care is also planned to draw from the work of White River Junction.
Under the proposed planned by U.S. Representative Annie Kuster (D-NH), six veterans hospitals across the U.S. would be designated as a center of excellence.
At these hospitals, teams of integrated specialists would develop and maintain the hospitals’ pain care much in the same way as White River Junction. A national coordinator for pain care would also be established within the VA.