This past week, several of our nation’s public health experts testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. They made the concerning argument that despite all of the effort and attention being cast on the national opioid epidemic, we are failing to make significant progress. In fact, we are continuing to lose ground and opioid related deaths continue to accelerate across the country.
Against this disheartening backdrop, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, highlighted an important and exciting initiative that will hopefully bear evidence based data that can be used to slow and reverse this course. An interagency effort between the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veteran’s Affairs will be used to fund 12 research projects totaling $81 million dollars for the next six years and focus on nondrug approaches to pain management in the military and veteran populations.
As an Air Force veteran myself, I can’t be supportive enough for this kind of work. In 2012, I served as a critical care air evacuation physician transporting troops from Afghanistan to Germany, and had the honor of taking care of some our nation’s most gravely injured soldiers. The sorts of injuries that we cared for on a daily basis—gunshot wounds, bomb blasts, and burn injuries--were the most extreme that I’ve ever encountered in my clinical practice. In that setting, there’s no question in my mind that opioids were lifesaving medications. To try and provide comfort without them would have been both ineffective and cruel.
Since coming home, I’ve had the opportunity to remain involved in veteran healthcare and have seen the burden that chronic pain can bring to our youngest and brightest members of society—it’s an unfortunate reflection of the same burden that chronic pain is having in our civilian cohort. And similarly, in both civilian and military populations, the management of chronic pain with inappropriate opioid strategies has worsened the toll of addiction and unnecessary overdose deaths. We must absolutely find a way to stem this crisis because it is tearing apart the social fabric that connects us regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class.
This interagency effort will be a chance to develop long term strategies towards both acute and chronic pain management that do not rely solely on opioid medications. As the worsening opioid epidemic continues to reach across all facets of our society, we should collectively hope that this research is able to help unlock the keys towards safer and more effective non-opioid pain management strategies.
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