Opioid Use Similar Between Veterans, General Public

Opioid use among Afghanistan, Iraq veterans similar to general population.

US veterans may experience chronic pain as the result of heavy equipment, parachuting out of helicopters, stress, and sustaining combat injuries. Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat chronic pain, despite a lack of significant evidence that the drugs are effective. Due to the opioid epidemic, overprescribing has become a concern, especially among veterans.

Findings from a study published in Pain suggest that opioid utilization among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is similar to the general population. The authors included pharmacy claims data from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND) veterans.

"We found that use of opioids among OEF/OIF/OND veterans was characterized by use of moderate doses prescribed for fairly long periods of time," said study author Teresa Hudson, PharmD, PhD. "However, chronic use among this group of veterans appeared to be lower than that of veterans who served in other time periods."

Using Veterans Health Administration (VA) data, the authors found that 23% of these veterans were prescribed an opioid each year, which is comparable to the opioid use rate among the general population. Among these patients, two-thirds received a short-term prescription, while one-third were chronic users, according to the study.

The authors found that chronic opioid users were more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, use tobacco, and live in a rural area.

The authors also discovered that pain severity was observed to increase the risk of chronic opioid use, according to the study. Previous studies show that patients with chronic pain are 41% more likely to develop a prescription opioid use disorder than patients without chronic pain. This suggests that the VA should implement programs to reduce the risk of developing the disorder among these patients, according to the study.

The authors also found that opioid use was higher among veterans who served during different periods of time, which may require additional research to determine the underlying reasons for this trend.

The National Institutes of Health suggests that nondrug approaches can effectively control pain, such as acupuncture, yoga, Tai Chi, massage, and relaxation. Additionally, in light of the opioid epidemic, federal and state governments have been enacting laws to control the prescribing of the drug. However, the study results suggest that the recommendations and new legislation may not be highly effective at reaching Americans and specifically, veterans.

"Findings from this study suggest that opioid use patterns of OEF/OIF/and OND veterans are similar to those of the US population and suggest that the opioid problem is not so much a VA problem, but rather, an American problem," said study author Mark Edlund, MD, PhD.