Opioid Addiction and Abuse Among Service Members

You are likely familiar with the opioid epidemic that is adversely affecting our country. Roughly 2.1 million Americans currently abuse opioids in some way. While anyone can be vulnerable, there is one segment of the population that is uniquely susceptible to opioid abuse: service members and veterans. In fact, 11.7% of veterans will misuse opioids at some point. However, opioid addiction in veterans and servicemen and women goes largely undiscussed.

service members with packs walking


So why does this epidemic affect veterans and service members at such an alarming rate?

The answer is complicated. Let’s look at some of the possible reasons why.

The Cruel Reality of PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a significant issue veterans face when they come home.

Somewhere between 11-20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan returned home with PTSD. Despite these alarming statistics, many soldiers fail to seek treatment due to feelings of embarrassment and shame. 

Sadly, PTSD comes with stigma. All too often, veterans hide problems from friends and family and seek out other solutions to soothe their pain. This is where opioids enter the equation.

service members in group therapy


In many cases, veterans already have prescriptions for opioid-based pain medications to treat injuries. Unfortunately, when combined with PTSD, these opioids will lead to worsening symptoms of the condition. 

Similar to most instances of self-medication, opioids temporarily mask PTSD. This false sense of relief leads to a growing dependency (both mentally and physically) and higher doses of the prescription. 

Chronic Pain and Injuries are a Root Cause for Opioid Addiction

Another alarming statistic is that 44% of veterans who have gone to war experience chronic pain after coming home.

Most doctors treating injured servicemen or women prescribe opioids. Given the potency and addictive qualities of many opioids, the euphoric relief provided is conducive to harmful self-medication.

Doctors treat veterans with the utmost care. However, there are sometimes gaps and blind spots in the treatments offered to these brave men and women. Doctors are, at times, uncertain of how to treat chronic pain, which can further push those suffering towards isolation.

Treating Addiction, Pain, and PTSD

Opioid addiction, PTSD, and chronic pain symptoms go hand-in-hand for veterans.

Co-occurring disorders and addictions can only be treated by professionals with a firm grasp of the challenges faced by veterans. These attributes are key to the recovery process for veterans suffering from opioid addiction.

Organizations such as RehabSpot specialize in treating veterans stricken with opioid addictions. Their approach pays the kind of attention to detail that promotes recovery to servicemen and women.

There are other alternative treatments, such as the ones available at Tomah’s VA Medical Center, which offers acupuncture and whole-health coaching, as well as other holistic treatments.  

Medication Assisted Treatment often combines medication with therapy for a more holistic approach to recovery.

Potentially, through comprehensive approaches that deal with all aspects of a veteran’s struggles, the opioid issue amongst service people can be offset.

soldier with hands together

 It’s Time for Veterans to Receive the Help they Need

Servicemen and women deserve a comprehensive support system.

Many veterans may not realize that programs such as Medication Assisted Treatment, may be covered under insurance or be available thru the Veteran’s Administration.

Resources such as SAMHSA are also out there that can pair a veteran you care about with the support they may need.

The veterans in our country have sacrificed so much for the freedoms many of us take for granted. Let’s take the first step to help them get the treatment they need.

About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

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