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Managing Chronic Pain

Managing Chronic Pain for Veterans

Chronic pain can lead to depression and anxiety, addiction, detachment – even suicide.

It can transform what should be a joyous homecoming for America’s veterans into a continuous struggle; a persistent and hellish reminder of the battlefield they left behind.

Chronic pain is defined as pain occurring in one or more areas – often the head, neck, arms, and legs – that persist for 3-6 months or longer.

Causes can include natural wear and tear on the body due to aging, disorders of the circulatory and nervous systems; and the long term effects of disease and chronic illness. For veterans, in particular, contributing factors include muscle strain and inflammation stemming from the oppressive weight of protective gear, and the residual effects of injuries sustained during battle, which frequently resurface as an individual grows older.

Sometimes, though, the source cannot be pinpointed at all.

In fact, because the underlying origins of chronic pain are often not visible, and reliant solely on a veteran’s account, it was previously not uncommon for sufferers to be marginalized by licensed medical professionals and told that the pain exists only in their minds.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. All pain is regulated by the brain, after all, and it has been proven that pain can be magnified by a person’s emotional state. For these reasons, psychological care, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has become more prevalent in treating it directly and, for some, medications that treat mood have proven to be effective in helping to manage their chronic pain.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, it has been documented that chronic pain is associated with PTSD, while subsequent treatment with prescription opioids – such as OxyContin and Vicodin – over the last decade has led to misuse and overdose among the veteran population.

Steps have been taken in recent years to lower opioid dependence, and to promote alternative means of care, including CBT, acupuncture, yoga, physical therapy, and other non-addictive medications.

If you are among the many who suffer from chronic pain, do not suffer in silence. Take the following steps to receive the care you deserve and achieve the relief you require.

  • Keep your doctor informed. Treating chronic pain, sadly, is far more labyrinth than straight line. It manifests differently from person to person, and treatment can range from medication to surgery to therapies both physical and psychiatric. Together, you and your doctor should develop a comprehensive pain management plan that addresses all symptoms, regulates prescription use, and implements stress management techniques.
  • Keep a pain journal. Be cognizant to document the myriad of ways in which pain impacts your day-to-day life, from the effects on your work to those at home. Being able to report a chronology of symptoms, as well as aggravating and alleviating activities, to your physician is essential to allow for the continued growth of a successful treatment plan.
  • Keep moving. Chronic pain can slow a person down, making even the thought of forward motion a chore. This results in a loss of interest in normal routines, weight gain, and actually causes muscular atrophy over time. An active lifestyle, a healthy diet and proper sleep is essential in thwarting the effects of chronic pain. Following the counsel of your physician, physical therapy and regular exercise are key ways to improve your physical health, while boosting your mood and diverting your attention away from your pain. Exercise also promotes better sleep patterns, which elevates disposition and has been shown to lessen the need for medications.

Additional options for treatment can include:

  • Counseling to learn how to cope with pain and practice positive thinking
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Engagement in one’s community and/or with a hobby or passion
  • Support groups

Chronic pain can often create a sense of hopelessness in those suffering with it. This notion can compound or create mental issues in veterans, leading to anxiety, addiction, and even suicide. Be mindful of the signs of depression, and seek help immediately if you develop any of the following symptoms:

  • Sadness or anxiety
  • A hopeless or empty feeling
  • Irritation and restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dietary changes – overeating or loss of appetite
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others

Diligent self-assessment is a critical part of managing your chronic pain. While this enemy remains elusive, by controlling the things you can control, accepting help to alleviate those things you can’t, and remaining aware of your emotional state, its effects can be kept in check, and relief can become a reality.