Spanning five years, costing almost $22 million and spread across 13 separate research trials nationwide, several federal agencies are tackling head-on the mounting problem of how to treat chronic pain in the U.S. military without exacerbating the country's opioid abuse problem.
The new research program, spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Services Research and Development Division, will look at non-drug approaches for treating chronic pain and some of the conditions that go hand-in-hand with it, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug abuse and sleep problems. Modalities to be studied will include, but are not limited to psychotherapy, bright light therapy and self-hypnosis.
The multicenter research effort, involving VA medical centers and academic institutions, will not only focus on active military and U.S. veterans but will look at the effects on their families as well.
According to NCCAM director Josephine Briggs, MD, more Americans turn to complementary and alternative therapies for pain relief than for any other condition. That fact, and the need to stem the increasing problem of prescription painkiller abuse among military personnel, has led to the large-scale research effort, she said.
"The need for non-drug treatment options is a significant and urgent public health imperative," Dr. Briggs said in a statement. "We believe this research will provide much-needed information that will help our military and their family members, and ultimately anyone suffering from chronic pain and related conditions."
A recent large-scale study (N=2,597) showed that chronic pain among U.S. military following deployment was reported by 44% of study subjects, compared with 26% in the general population, and opioid use was seen in 15% versus 4%, respectively. Of individuals reporting chronic pain in the study, 65.6% described it as constant, and 51.2% stated that their pain was moderate or severe. Estimated costs related to chronic pain and its treatment in military personnel are close to $5 trillion (JAMA Intern Med 2014;174:1402-1403).
"Prescription opioids are important tools for managing pain, but their greater availability and increased prescribing may contribute to their growing misuse," said Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA, in a statement. "This body of research will add to the growing arsenal of pain management options to give relief while minimizing the potential for abuse, especially for those bravely serving our nation in the armed forces."