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Vets with PTSD more likely to get addictive painkillers

Study: Suicides, overdoses higher among war vets suffering disorder

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Recently returned war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are twice as likely to be prescribed addictive painkillers, according to a new study.

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined 141,029 veterans of the recent wars after their return home.

According to the LA Times, it found that 17.8 percent of a total of 15,676 vets prescribed opioid painkillers for 20 or more consecutive days suffered PTSD, while only 11.7 percent of vets with mental health diagnoses but not PTSD and 6.5 percent of vets with no mental health diagnosis at all were prescribed the drugs.

And subsequent suicides, other self-inflicted injuries, and drug and alcohol overdoses were all more common in vets with PTSD who were prescribed the drugs, according to the Associated Press.

Opium-based drugs like morphine and hydrocodone can dull excruciating physical pain, though they are rarely prescribed to veterans. 

However, some doctors — often operating outsie the Veterans Affairs health system— prescribe them for vets who also have mental pain "with the hope that the emotional distress that accompanies chronic pain will also be reduced," the AP quoted Michael Von Korff, a chronic illness researcher with Seattle's Group Health Research Institute, as saying.

However, "opioids can sometimes make emotional problems worse," he said.  

Some vets in the study got the drugs from overburdened primary care physicians, said lead study author Dr. Karen, according to the AP.

"Imagine primary care doctors getting about 20 minutes to see a patient expressing high levels of distress," because of war-related physical and mental trauma, she said.

The balance between providing pain relief and caution over addictive drugs "is always in play," she said.

PTSD the most prevalent mental health disorder among veterans returning home with co-existing mental and physical health problems, Nurse.com reported.

According to the website, the study authors wrote: "Nationwide, the prescription of opioid analgesics has nearly doubled since 1994 because of a greater recognition of the importance of treating pain.

"At the same time, rates of prescription opioid misuse and overdose have increased sharply, and prescription opioids are now a leading cause of death in the United States.

"Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with pain- and PTSD-prescribed opioids may be at particularly high risk of prescription opioid misuse given the high co-occurrence of substance abuse disorders among veterans with PTSD."

Add to this the fact that record numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are surviving their war injuries, owing to improvements in battlefield medicine and protective gear, and the outcomes are potentially troubling, the study authors said.

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Staff Sgt. Donna Davis/U.S. Army

A soldier shields his face from the blowing snow from a helicopter Thursday in Afghanistan.

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