(NaturalNews) As if some returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan didn't have enough problems already, many of them are now being prescribed risky painkillers that can have profoundly negative effects, especially for those with pre-existing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other physical ailments.
According to a recently released government study, vets who have been diagnosed with PTSD are being prescribed morphine and similar powerful painkillers two times more often than vets with only physical pain, when they are already at risk for alcohol and drug abuse.
Even more shocking, the study found, is that Iraq and Afghanistan vets who developed PTSD and already had pre-existing substance abuse issues were four times more likely to be prescribed addictive painkillers than those without mental health problems.
As a result suicides, other self-inflicted injuries and drug and alcohol overdoses, while still rare, were more prevalent in vets with PTSD who received painkilling drugs, said the study's authors.
Overall, relatively few veterans are prescribed drugs like hydrocordone and morphine, which work to dull severe pain. With that said, some physicians may still prescribe them to vets who have symptoms of mental anguish and suffering "with the hope that the emotional distress that accompanies chronic pain will also be reduced," Michael Von Korff, a chronic illness researcher with Group Health Research Institute in Seattle - who was not involved in the study - told the Associated Press.
"Unfortunately, this hope is often not fulfilled, and opioids can sometimes make emotional problems worse," he added.
The study involved 141,029 men and women, all veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who had been diagnosed with non-cancerous physical pain between October 2005 and December 2010. Half of them were also diagnosed with mental health problems, including PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs paid for the study, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
VA: More needs to be done
Dr. Karen Seal, lead author of the study who is treating patients at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, said she has sometimes prescribed opiates to war veterans, but only if other painkillers have not been effective.
Commenting on the results of the study, the VA said while its pain management program has been called a model of care, "we recognize that more work needs to be done."
"Among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, rates of psychological and neurological injuries are high and rising," said the study, conducted by the RAND Corporation for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a veteran's advocacy group, adding that "nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans screen positive for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression."
"Although these statistics are troubling, we have yet to see the full extent of troops' psychological and neurological injuries. Servicemembers are still deploying on long and repeated combat tours, which increase the risk of blast injuries and combat stress. Rates of marital stress, substance abuse, and suicide are all increasing," the report said, adding that divorce rates among female Marines was nearly three times the national average, and that the Army suicide rate hit a 27-year high in 2008.
Primary care physicians prescribe the most
In the VA-sponsored study, researchers found that more than three-quarters of the opiate prescriptions given to vets - 77 percent - came from primary care physicians.
"This is not surprising," said Seal. "Patients in pain are far more likely to present to primary care than to go to mental health clinics for treatment of PTSD, and our ability to treat complex patients with pain and PTSD symptoms in primary care settings is currently somewhat limited."
She went onto say that when faced with such challenging patients who have high levels of distress, "primary care physicians do what they can to relieve pain and suffering. They may have concerns about prescribing opiates, but they want to relieve the pain and continue to maintain contact with their patient."