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Vets with mental health problems more likely to abuse painkillers

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have an increased risk of mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Now a new study finds these individuals are also more likely to receive opioid pain prescriptions and to misuse those drugs.

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., creates a picture of escalating problems for veterans who come back from war with emotional and physical problems. The study examined 141,029 veterans of the recent wars after their return home. Among them, 15,676 were prescribed opioid painkillers for 20 or more consecutive days.

But the study showed that 17.8% of vets with PTSD received the drugs compared with 11.7% of vets with mental health diagnoses but not PTSD and 6.5% of vets with no mental health diagnosis.

The study also showed that the vets with PTSD and a substance-use disorder were most likely to be prescribed opioids compared with vets with no mental health disorder -- 33.5% compared with 6.5%.

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The research points to the need for doctors to use caution when treating veterans who need pain relief but who also have mental health or substance-use disorders. Even in the civilian population, abuse of opioid medications has skyrocketed, with increased rates of addiction and overdose deaths. But, the authors noted: “Most VA primary care clinicians lack specialized training in the management of comorbid pain and PTSD.”

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