Members of the United States military serve our country to protect us and our freedom. Once they return home as veterans, we celebrate them and thank them for our service. But it’s crucial that our care for them doesn’t end there. Many times, military members experience complex, chronic pain that can significantly impact their wellbeing. It can also impact their ability to integrate back into their lives at home. If you are one of the millions of military members with chronic pain or if are a loved one, it’s important to understand the complexity of chronic pain and the best ways to manage it.
Causes of chronic pain in military members
Nearly half of American combat soldiers experience chronic pain upon returning home. Recent research shows that 44% of soldiers indicate they are in chronic pain longer than 3 months upon return. This is almost double the figure in the civilian population (26%). As a result, about 15% report recent opioid use to manage pain.
The study also found that those who are most likely to experience chronic pain are:
- over 30
- married or were previously married
- were injured in combat
- have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
If you are a returning veteran, you can be at risk of lifetime progression of chronic pain unless you manage it properly.
Chronic pain 101
The cause of chronic pain may include:
- Previous injury
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Stress, depression or other mental health concerns
- Other, untreated health issues
The most common types of pain from most to least are:
- Jaw pain
- Back pain and sciatica
- Neck pain
- Any back pain
- Joint pain
- Back pain not linked to sciatica
Managing chronic pain as military members
Military members with chronic pain can experience a series of barriers to improvement, as the list of possible causes of chronic pain is quite long. They usually include untreated physical issues (such as combat injuries that are not fully healed or that didn’t heal correctly), previous issues related to health/quality of life and psychological factors like trauma, stress, depression and anxiety.
You can learn more about veterans and managing chronic pain by watching the video below:
The Department of Veteran Affairs, upon recognizing the number of soldiers reporting chronic pain and the number of veterans and their families affected, developed a series of guidelines for the management of chronic and acute pain. These guidelines have been shown to be effective, which is why it is important to encourage their implementation.
Specific guidelines have been developed for different types of chronic pain. The following is a summary of general guidelines for pain care and management:
1. Visit your doctor regularly
Follow up with the health care team members who have a record of your pain medications and pain treatments. Ask your family members and loved ones to support you by offering emotional support or attending appointments with you.
Some service members and veterans may worry about paying for treatments. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs can help you find the best, most-affordable treatment options.
2. Seek therapy or psychological treatment
Psychological issues that arise upon return to civilian life can aggravate chronic pain and your overall well-being. PTSD, depression, anxiety and chronic stress are not conditions that simply pass over time. It is important to talk to a professional about it to determine the best course of action.
Note that the best course of action doesn’t necessarily mean having to take medication. Alternative practices, like exercise, yoga and mediation can be effective, potentially complementary approaches to psychological health. Support groups are also a way to connect with people who are going through the same experience. In many cases, veterans have a difficult time relating to civilians after returning from active duty. Heroes’ Mile Veteran Recovery and Transition Center offers a new type of approach to treating veterans by providing a veteran to veteran technique.
3. Support loved ones who struggle
If you are a loved one of an active duty military member or a veteran, one of the most important things you can do is be there. Offer them support when needed and allow them to have an adjustment period. Remind them that you love them and care for them and that you are there for them as they seek care for their chronic pain.
How do you manage chronic pain as a military member?
Tell us about your pain journey in the comments.
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This post has been updated in January 2019 with new information and resources.