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Prevalence of Opioid Use Disorder in the Military

by Ashley Smith

With the rigorous missions American troops take on while enlisted, many often seek out pain management from doctors to deal with the physical impact on their bodies or injuries they sustained. Opioid pain killers are the most commonly prescribed treatment for these ailments.  A study has shown that over 40% of the US infantry has reported chronic pain lasting three months or more upon deployment, putting those in the military at a higher risk of opioid addiction than civilians. Substance use disorder (SUD) is a great concern for those in the military, from active duty to veterans, causing those who oversee soldiers’ medical benefits to enact the Sole Provider Program and the Controlled Drug Management Analysis and Reporting Tool. This system is being used to monitor and identify those who may be falling into problematic opioid medication dispensing and use.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

Chronic pain is just one factor leading to high opioid prescription rates among the troops. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from deployment is also causing many soldiers to seek out medications from military doctors to help aid their reoccurring and often debilitating symptoms.

  • 1 in 4 soldiers are given an opioid prescription in a given year
  • 45% of those who serve return with some form of PTSD
  • Military personnel are less likely to uses illicit drugs but may misuse prescription drugs
  • Opioid use is most commonly associated with PTSD
  • PTSD patients are most likely to mix opioids with other substances
  • Female soldiers are three times more likely to have co-occurring PTSD and SUD
  • Patients between 18-34 years of age with PTSD are at a higher risk of developing SUD

PTSD, when co-occurring with other chronic pain symptoms, can be a catalyst for military personnel to misuse their opioid medications as a means to cope with their mental health that isn’t always easily treated with psychiatry and therapy.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Since the mid-2000s, the military has ramped up their support for active-duty members and veterans to seek help for addiction without having to suffer in shame and silence. The opioid epidemic made it nearly impossible for substance use disorder statistics among the troops to be swept under the rug. MAT has now become a popular life-saving option for those who have opioid use disorder. Lifting the stigma off of those who are struggling with addiction and allowing them to receive FDA-approved and scientifically-backed medications to treat their opioid use disorder is giving soldiers and veterans a greater chance at a higher quality of life during and after deployment. This also allows for many of those who are dealing with co-occurring disorders like PTSD or physical injuries to better focus on their rehabilitation without their addiction draining all of their will and energy.

Along with the Sole Provider Program and the Controlled Drug Management Analysis and Reporting Tool, the US military has begun to see declines in the percentages of opioid prescription use between 2010 and 2017, with the biggest drop occurring around 2012 and 2013. These figures are much more promising than just several years earlier in 2009, where 9,032 patients in the Veterans Health Administration were diagnosed with opioid use disorder, up from 26,818 in 2005.

Within those ten years, the use of MAT increased significantly, as the VHA pushed to make those treatment options more widely available and accepted. These rapidly occurring changes in the way troops are being cared for in regards to mental health, and substance use disorder is a net positive for veterans, and future aspiring military, though the number of facilities and individuals in the Military Health System are still fairly low. With the continued monitoring of opioid prescriptions being written and dispensed, as well as spreading awareness about opioid use disorder, there is continued optimism that our troops are giving the quality care they deserve.


Additional sources:

Medically Reviewed By:

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

The Clinical Team at Health Care Resource Centers is our team of physicians and medical directors within the organization. HCRC is a CARF accredited organization and has been providing addiction treatment services for over 32 years in the New England area.

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