Friday, June 25, 2010

Military's pain relief programs fall short

Army surgeon general Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker

By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The military's failure to provide consistent and coordinated pain relief to troops contributes to suicides, prescription drug abuse and aggravates cases of mental illness and brain injury, according to an Army task force investigation.

Prescribing doctors rely too often on narcotic pain relievers, while a "no pain, no gain" military culture encourages troops to ignore injuries until discomfort becomes chronic, says the 169-page task force report released Wednesday.

The 22-member task force was created last year to examine how the military treats wound and injury pain — a growing consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and develop a comprehensive plan to treat it.

The Pentagon must reorganize how it deals with troops in pain, including training and hiring more pain-management specialists and finding different methods of pain relief other than narcotics, the report says.

Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, said in a statement that the report will help the entire military improve how it handles pain management.

Prescription drug abuse in the military is rising, records show. About 22% of troops said they abused pain drugs in the previous year, a 2008 Pentagon health survey showed, and 13% said they had done so in the previous 30 days.

The military fails to screen ailing servicemembers for their risk of substance abuse, the report says. It calls for screening troops to help doctors better manage those prone to drug dependency. Forty-five percent of troops in the military health care system may be at risk for substance abuse, the report says.

"It is basically saying, 'Let's take a look at what we need to do and why we need to do it and be very honest with ourselves,' " says Rollin Gallagher, the Department of Veterans Affairs' pain management director and task force member.

The military health care system doesn't identify ailing troops early enough or say, " 'We know that you guys have come off a really hard deployment. Everybody's got aches and pains. … Let's give you time to heal and get better,' " says Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general who assisted the task force.

Schoomaker said the military will examine alternatives to painkillers.

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