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UTHSCSA To Study Alternatives To Pain Medication For Returning Vets

Eileen Pace


The U-T Health Science Center at San Antonio has been selected to participate in a multi-level, national research program to explore non-medication options for chronic pain.

The $21 million dollar program seeks to demonstrate the efficacy of alternatives for pain management that can help combat the overuse of prescription opioids.

There’s plenty of evidence of the need for alternatives to pain meds.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine [CAM], which is funding the studies, calls it an “urgent public health imperative.”

JAMA Internal Medicine in June reported a 15 percent use of opioids among post-deployment military, compared to 4 percent in the general population.

Professor Donald McGeary at the UT Health Science Center will be testing alternative therapies on veterans who were wounded in combat and now have chronic pain issues.

"It's not just shifting from one medication to another," McGeary explained. "It's actually identifying a so-called CAM approach that may actually be able to help and deliver some pain relief."

McGeary will be studying poly-trauma patients, some of the most severe cases among military members and veterans from South Texas Veterans Health Care System, and possibly Central Texas.

"That would be someone with chronic pain but also other trauma conditions like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury," McGeary explained.                    

The study in San Antonio will use guided exercise, biofeedback, imagery, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and meditation.

"Meditation is something that a lot of people are at least colloquially familiar with - you know, you cross your legs and say 'om,' and try to clear you mind or to have peaceful thoughts. As people have started to really examine something like meditation, what we find is that it's actually quite useful and it does impart some pain management benefits," McGeary said. 

The program involves thirteen studies across the country, from Yale and Brandeis Universities to Medical University in Charleston, South Carolina, and Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa. One study tests the feasibility of using morning bright light treatment for pain and PTSD.  Another study explores the use of Web-based and mobile-app meditation training programs to relieve pain among active duty soldiers.

A 2011 Institute of Medicine report estimates the cost of chronic pain at $635 billion a year and calls for a “cultural transformation.”

Officials hope the combined data of this project will help reduce prescriptions for pain medication and find a better path to relief for the 44 percent of post-combat military personnel who suffer pain and the side effects of over medicating. 

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.