PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Something is attacking our military service members, and it often shows up after the battle is over.

In a first-of-its-kind study, doctors have discovered large numbers of veterans suffering from chronic pain.

“There’s something about taking these young men, putting them in the desert for a 12 – 18 month tour, having them wear a hundred pounds of body armor, in stressful situations that you and I can’t even imagine, and half of them come back with chronic pain,” Dr. Michael Mangione, a pain specialist at Pittsburgh’s VA Medical Center, said.

Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research looked at how common chronic pain and narcotic use were among veterans after deployment.

“They have neuropathic pain, they have chronic headaches, they have fibromyalgia,” Mangione said. “Probably the biggest complaint we see is back pain.”

After analyzing surveys of more than 2,500 soldiers who had been in Iraq or Afghanistan, it turned out that 44 percent had chronic pain lasting more than three months, and 15 percent used narcotic pain medicines or opiates. This is higher than estimates in the general population of 26 percent with chronic pain and 4 percent using narcotics.

“That’s pretty consistent with what I’ve been seeing over the past 10 years,” Mangione said.

Treating this group of veterans is a challenge.

“These patients come to us on very large doses of opiates,” Mangione said, “and their pain still isn’t controlled. And that makes treatment even more complicated. You’re not just treating pain, you have to address neurological issues, you have to address post-traumatic stress disorder, you really have to treat the patient comprehensively.”

Involving doctors from several specialties in a team approach, cognitive behavioral therapy and even complimentary techniques are having some impact. Mangione said they are trying treatments such as like yoga, tai chi and acupuncture.

Recognizing that some people need opiates or narcotics, the goal is to treat the pain and minimize the risk of overdose and accidental death, which doctors are seeing even at lower doses of medication.

The study points to a need to evaluate and treat chronic pain and narcotic use after combat.

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