As Nation Battles Opioid Abuse, Veterans Find New Ways to Manage Pain

Many veterans who served our country have found themselves at war against a common enemy: the overprescribing of opioids to manage their pain. But NBC 5 Investigates has found data that suggests one of the country’s largest health care systems is helping to slow a nation-wide epidemic.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said nearly a quarter of its patients were being prescribed an opioid in 2012. But due to the drugs’ potential for addiction and overdoses, the VA said it is now limiting its opioid prescribing.

The results are evident at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in the Chicago Suburbs. The VA’s records show 14 percent of the veterans who visited Hines in 2012 were prescribed opioids. The number, as of 2017, has dropped to 9 percent.

“Our physicians, nursing staff, clinical pharmacists, they work together as a team,” said Dr. Raj Uppal, director of Hines Pain Services. “We wanted to address this so that we don’t have the menace of opioids.”

Hines VA currently serves nearly 59,000 veterans and last year had more than 850,000 outpatient visits at the main hospital and its Chicago-area clinics. There are currently 1,529 patients at Hines currently being prescribed opioids, down from 2,591 patients several years ago, according to Uppal.

The prescription of opioids at Hines VA is only one part of pain management, which now includes physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture and mindfulness.

“All these measures have proved very effective in getting patients off the opioids and on their way to recovery,” Uppal said.

Bolingbrook native and Iraq War veteran Joseph Ciszczon, 38, sustained a neck injury in a vehicle accident shortly before deploying to Iraq. He said he was prescribed opioids to manage his pain for years by military doctors and later the VA.

Ciszczon, a medic who was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for bravery, said at the highest point he was being prescribed nearly 1,000 pain pills a month.

“If I did miss a dose, I would feel the effects of it,” Ciszczon said. “In a way, the opioids had me. They had me hooked.”

But he gives credit to the VA for introducing him to acupuncture and other treatment methods in recent years.

“I got my life back together and I’m completely off opioids,” Ciszcon said.

He said woodworking and other hobbies also help manage his pain.

VA data also shows opioid prescribing is down at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago and Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.

Ciszczon said if anything could be improved, it’s that more veterans need to be informed about the new pain management methods.

In addition to the VA’s own acupuncture services, veterans can also be referred to specialists across the Chicago area.

Jim Zotti owns Red Aspen Acupuncture in La Grange and his staff has treated many veterans for their pain. He said the VA should consider approving more acupuncture visits for veterans beyond the initial ten visits.

“When we request additional visits it usually gets approved, but after a break of care, our momentum has stopped and we are almost back to square one,” Zotti said.

The VA says continuing care is reviewed and may be approved based on medical necessity.

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