Senate Panel Examines Alternatives to Pain Drugs

WASHINGTON, April 30 – With chronic pain affecting more than half of all veterans eligible for VA health care, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today looked at efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase access to therapies like acupuncture and yoga as alternatives to addictive narcotics.

“I commend VA for its efforts to make complementary and alternative medicine more widely available to veterans and their families,” Sanders said, “but more must be done.”

For many veterans, chronic pain is a part of daily life, the chairman added. “My experience – having visited VA medical centers around the country – is that more and more veterans are turning to complementary and alternative medicine therapies such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga to treat pain and mental health conditions while reducing their dependence on narcotics.”

Throughout VA’s 151 medical centers and hundreds of clinics, the department has recognized a need to reduce a reliance on high-dose medications. The department’s Opioid Safety Initiative launched last fall in Minneapolis already has begun to yield results. The facility has decreased its use of high-dose opioids by nearly 70 percent.

Dr. Robert Petzel, VA’s under secretary for health, told the committee that the issue of pain treatment and overmedication is a major focus of the department because veterans have much higher rates of chronic pain than the general population. Many veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Petzel testified, “have survived serious and at times catastrophic injuries frequently as a result of road-side bombs and other blast injuries.” 

Sanders commended the VA and also praised the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes for Health for identifying non-narcotic alternatives to treating chronic pain and mental health conditions. The center has made groundbreaking contributions that helped expand viable and safer treatment options.

Comprehensive legislation by Sanders to expand health care, education and other benefits for veterans included a provision to expand access at VA hospitals and clinics to alternative treatments for chronic pain and mental health diagnoses. Sanders said he hopes to revive the measure later this spring.