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Veteran’s Day reminds us the opioid epidemic impacts veterans, too

In America, we often put veterans on a pedestal. We do it for many good reasons – we are humbled by their dedication to the country, appreciative of their service, and grateful for the sacrifices they have made. Unfortunately, this respect donned upon us, as Veterans, doesn’t make us immune to any other health issues facing ordinary Americans including the nation’s opioid epidemic.

I know this because I am a veteran who served in the military for nearly 4 years. While in service, I suffered a traumatic hip injury that required surgery. After my hip replacement, I was prescribed opioids to help manage my pain. In fact, I was prescribed these opioids for well over a year and eventually became dependent upon the pills.

I wish my story was unique. Unfortunately, for far too many Americans, including myself and countless other veterans, the operating room served as the unintentional gateway to long-term opioid use. Research shows that three million Americans per year become newly persistent opioid users after initial exposure due to surgery, meaning they are still taking opioids months after their procedures. This is an all-too-common refrain.

It’s easy to see why. After my surgery, I was prescribed thousands of opioid pills over 12 months. I have come to understand that my experience as a surgical patient is not unique; data shows that the average prescription for many common surgical procedures is nearly 100 opioid pills. This level of exposure to powerful opioids is not just irresponsible – it is reckless.

I was surprised to learn that there are available non-opioid pain management approaches that could have helped me effectively manage my surgery pain. I know many veterans who are injured in the field and require surgery would be similarly surprised to learn about this, particularly given the fact that TRICARE – the health system that provides care to active and retired military members and their families – is one of the country’s largest purchasers of opioids.

Sadly, for myself and millions of other patients who have surgery every year, there was no choice in how I wanted to manage my postsurgical pain. Addressing the opioid epidemic requires a comprehensive, all-hand-on-deck approach. A vital part of this approach must focus on preventing addiction before it starts. One way to do this is to help surgery patients understand the existing range of effective pain management options, and to empower them to choose opioid alternatives to limit unnecessary exposure to opioids.

This is a commonsense approach that can prevent a surgical exposure from leading to long-term opioid use and can also rid our communities of billions of unused pills that are often unsafely stored in medicine cabinets available for diversion or potential misuse.

By advocating for non-opioid options, we can avoid unnecessary exposure to opioids after surgery. We owe this to our veterans-to help them manage their pain in an effective way without putting them at risk for future addiction.

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