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opioid misuse

A Whole Person Approach to Lifting the Burden of Chronic Pain Among Service Members and Veterans

Posted on by Helene M. Langevin, M.D., National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

People in an exercise class wearing Army t-shirts, people in a yoga classes, people in a tai chi class
Credit: U.S. Army; Getty Images; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Sgt. Jennifer Spradlin, U.S. Army

Chronic pain and its companion crisis of opioid misuse have taken a terrible toll on Americans. But the impact has been even greater on U.S. service members and veterans, who often deal with the compounded factors of service-related injuries and traumatic stress.

For example, among soldiers in a leading U.S. Army unit, 44 percent had chronic pain and 15 percent used opioids after a combat deployment. That compares to 26 percent and 4 percent, respectively, in the general population [1,2].

This disproportionate burden of chronic pain among veterans [3] and service members led NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to act. We forged a collaboration in 2017 across NIH, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) to establish the Pain Management Collaboratory (PMC).

The PMC’s research focusing on the implementation and evaluation of nondrug approaches for the management of pain is urgently needed in the military and across our entire country. Nondrug approaches require a shift in thinking. Rather than focusing solely on blocking pain temporarily using analgesics, nondrug approaches work with the mind and body to promote the resolution of chronic pain and the long-term restoration of health through techniques and practices such as manual therapy, yoga, and mindfulness-based interventions.

Addressing chronic pain in ways that don’t only rely on drugs means addressing underlying issues, such as joints and connective tissue that lack adequate movement or training our brains to “turn down the volume” on pain signals. Using mind and body practices to reduce pain can help promote health in other ways. Possible “fringe benefits” include better sleep, more energy for physical activity, a better mindset for making good nutritional choices, and/or improved mood.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research on the benefits of nondrug approaches to address chronic pain. What is so powerful about PMC is it puts this knowledge to work by embedding research within military health care settings.

The PMC supports a shared resource center and 11 large-scale pragmatic clinical trials. Within this real-world health care setting, the clinical trials have enrolled more than 8,200 participants across 42 veteran and military health systems. These studies offer both strength in numbers and insights into what happens when learnings from controlled clinical trials collide with the realities of health care delivery and the complexities of daily life. [4]

Central to the PMC partnership is whole person health. Too often, we see health through the prism of separate parts—for example, a person’s cardiovascular, digestive, and mental health problems are viewed as co-occurring rather than as interrelated conditions. A whole person framework—a central focus of NCCIH’s current Strategic Plan—brings the parts back together and recognizes that health exists across multiple interconnected body systems and domains: biological, behavioral, social, and environmental.

The VA’s implementation of a whole health model [5] and their unique closed-loop health care system offers an opportunity to deliver care, conduct research, and illustrate what happens when people receive coordinated care that treats the whole person. In fact, VA’s leadership in this area was the impetus for a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report underscored the importance of implementing whole person health care in all settings and for every American.

There are many opportunities ahead for this interagency collaboration. It will help to achieve an important shift, from treating problems one at a time to promoting overall military readiness, resilience, and well-being for U.S. service members and veterans.

Congress appropriated $5 million to NCCIH in fiscal year 2023 to enhance pain research with a special emphasis on military populations. These additional resources will allow NCCIH to support more complex studies in understanding how multiple therapeutic approaches that impact multiple body systems can impact chronic pain.

Meanwhile, programs like the DOD’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) will continue to translate these lessons learned into accessible pain management information that service members can use in promoting and maintaining their health.

While the PMC’s research program specifically targets the military community, this growing body of knowledge will benefit us all. Understanding how to better manage chronic pain and offering more treatment options for those who want to avoid the risks of opioids will help us all build resilience and restore health of the whole person.

References:

[1] Chronic pain and opioid use in US soldiers after combat deployment. Toblin RL, Quartana PJ, Riviere LA, Walper KC, Hoge CW. JAMA Intern. Med. 2014 Aug;174(8):1400-1401.

[2] Pain and opioids in the military: We must do better. Jonas WB, Schoomaker EB. JAMA Intern. Med. 2014 Aug;174(8):1402-1403

[3] Severe pain in veterans: The effect of age and sex, and comparisons with the general population. Nahin RL. J Pain. 2017 Mar; 18(3):247-254.

[4] Justice and equity in pragmatic clinical trials: Considerations for pain research within integrated health systems. Ali J, Davis AF, Burgess DJ, Rhon DI, Vining R, Young-McCaughan S, Green S, Kerns RD. Learn Health Sys. 2021 Oct 19;6(2): e10291

[5] The APPROACH trial: Assessing pain, patient-reported outcomes, and complementary and integrative health. Zeliadt S, Coggeshall S, Thomas E, Gelman H, Taylor S. Clin. Trials. 2020 Aug;17(4):351-359.

Links:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH)

NCCIH Strategic Plan FY 2021-2025: Mapping a Pathway to Research on Whole Person Health (NIH)

Pain Management Collaboratory (Yale University, New Haven, CT)

Whole Health (U.S Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Washington, D.C.)

Consortium for Health and Military Performance (Department of Defense, Bethesda, MD)

Achieving Whole Health: A New Approach for Veterans and the Nation. (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Washington, D.C.)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 26th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.