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Half a Million Soldiers Battle Prescription Drug Abuse Back at Home

When soldiers return they bring home wounds both physical and mental. A recent study found that more than half of soldiers who receive opioid painkiller prescriptions continue to request and receive them months after they should have. This chronic use has spurred doctors to find the reasons why veterans can’t let go of their pain meds and how prescription drug abuse is increasing in returning U.S. veterans. The study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was a collaboration of researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and the Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Data from the Veterans Healthcare Administration included 959,226 veterans that had been prescribed opioids, with 502,634 of them using them at least 90 days past the time they had been prescribed. The researchers focused on why veterans didn’t discontinue the use of their prescriptions. Soldiers had to be free from using opioids for six months before researchers labeled their use as “discontinued.” The group of veterans most likely to continue using opioids were veterans who abused them by taking high daily doses, but there many other factors that they shared:

  • Being married
  • More than one chronic pain condition
  • Tobacco user
  • Used a combination of opioids
  • Used more than 100 mg of opioids each day
  • Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

By looking at these factors researchers hope to form strategies to help reduce the number of veterans who rely on pain pills. They also found some information as to why the other half of veterans did choose to discontinue using. Previous research on the long-term use of opioids for pain relief in nearly 5,000 patients showed that those who chose to discontinue their opioid use did it because it made them nauseous or caused other adverse effects. Those who continued their opioid use over 90 days showed problems with addiction. Since the prescription drug abuse battle has been damaging individuals and families more frequently over the last few years there have been many studies on opioid abuse. But this study found new information between mental health disorders, substance use disorders and opioid use. Veterans with mental health disorders had higher rates of discontinuation. Veterans with substance use disorders also had a higher rate of discontinuation, with the exception of tobacco users. Tobacco users were more likely to keep using opioids chronically. Could mental health patients give researchers more insight into breaking prescription painkiller abuse? This angle could lead to building strategies to help patients heal with less pain and without the fear of risk or addiction.

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