The U.S.’s significant military activity in the Middle East and around the world has increased the number of veterans coming home with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other long-term health difficulties needing management. Memorial Day is an important day for honoring our veterans and also raising awareness about the need to help soldiers receive adequate medical attention.

Twenty-two veterans kill themselves each day, reports Time magazine. Experts attribute the high number to the extreme mental health difficulties soldiers face when trying to reintegrate into society after seeing war, death, and destruction during one, or sometimes several, military tours. Many veterans also face lasting pain from combat-related injuries, further hampering their re-integration into society.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder that sometimes develops in survivors of trauma ranging from war to car accidents to diseases. Symptoms include repetitive, overwhelming thoughts about the trauma, emotional responses to the event even though it has passed, difficulties talking about the event that result in the affected person not discussing it at all, and ongoing fears that dangers related to the trauma still exist, according to Nevada Pain.

The severity of PTSD ranges from debilitating, with the veteran unable to leave the house or function at all, to less serious, where an individual can still interact with society but continues to deal with overwhelming stress and sadness.

Unfortunately, no good treatments for PTSD exist, leaving many veterans looking to self-medicate. The handful of antipsychotic medications available aren’t very effective, and they cause significant side effects like weight gain and sexual dysfunction, which cause problems by themselves, reports Wired. This leaves soldiers at risk of developing opioid addictions if they’re prescribed these medications to alleviate chronic pain.

Honor veteran contributions on Memorial Day while raising awareness of problems they face, like mental health issues and chronic pain. Veterans with chronic pain are more likely to take opioids than the general population, but perhaps even more concerning, some soldiers take the pills even if they’re not suffering from pain, according to research in the JAMA Internal Medicine.

Of those soldiers experiencing pain, more than half report moderate or severe pain, with 56% experiencing pain daily and 48% living with that pain for more than a year, according to the research.

Other research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has shown that as many as 44% of veterans suffer from chronic pain, compared to 26% in the general population. And while only about 4% of people in the general population use opioids to treat pain, the study found that 15% of veterans did.

The interplay between PTSD, chronic pain, and opioids is complex, with each problem feeding into one another, researchers said. Veterans may take prescription pills to fall asleep on nights when their minds replay all the things they’ve seen and done during war. The stress of PTSD could also contribute to pain.

On Memorial Day, remember veterans’ sacrifices and know the soldiers keep fighting at home, this time finding treatment for pain and PTSD. Many veterans find chronic pain is a physical reminder of combat, a mental scar that’s invisible to others but no less dire.

What causes chronic pain in veterans?

Veterans may develop chronic pain as a result of combat-related injury, or simply from the rigors of war. Soldiers frequently must carry heavy loads of equipment that weigh up to 170 pounds, according to Pain Doctor, for long periods of time, straining their backs and other muscles. They may also spend long periods of time in unnatural positions while waiting for their next move.

Veterans should know they certainly aren’t alone, and living with pain doesn’t require a person to just tough it out. This tough-person mentality is perhaps necessary while on-the-ground in war, but beginning to find a new normal requires the ability to speak up about pain and ask for help.

What is the best way for veterans to get treatment?

A good first step to figuring out an effective pain management plan is keeping a pain diary to track the types of pain that appear to identify any pain triggers.

Once a veteran visits a doctor’s office, the pain diary will help the doctor learn more about the soldier’s physical condition and aid in figuring out the best treatment options. The diary can also speak for itself, limiting the stress for veterans of needing to talk about their health concerns.

For those not ready to discuss their problems in-person with a doctor, or who seek ongoing support while healing, visit Veterans in Pain, a password-protected site that gives veterans a chance to talk to each other, privately, about their internal battles. Another online resource offering information and support is Make the Connection.

What are recommended ways for veterans to manage chronic pain and PTSD?

Although medications available on the market today tend not to work, there are many other ways to manage pain and emotional difficulties.

Alternative methods of treatment including physical therapy or medical procedures like transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation may help, according to Colorado Pain. More invasive therapies like steroid injections or nerve blocks, another type of injection, may also help.

Beyond medical treatment, exercise is an excellent way to help veterans manage stress and pain. Many veterans are also turning to yoga, which offers profound healing benefits for PTSD. Yoga Warriors International is a non-profit solely dedicated to helping combat veterans heal through this ancient mind and body practice.

Yoga helps veterans learn to activate the body’s natural relaxation response, the parasympathetic nervous system. Veterans can also, through yoga, release painful emotions like grief, guilt, and sadness, according to Yoga Warriors International.

Learning about these minimally invasive, effective ways of managing physical and emotional pain is critical to avoid the black hole of opioid use and dependency, which many veterans unfortunately fall into.

How do you plan to honor veterans and help their fight against chronic pain on Memorial Day?

Image by Fort Rucker via Flickr

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