Pain management: 'Pain schools' help veterans cut opioid use

The country's opioid addiction crisis has forced doctors to rethink the way they prescribe painkillers and treat patient pain. One possible solution is to follow the lead of the Veterans Administration and teach patients about non-medication alternatives to help control their pain, according to a CommonHealth report.

The VA now operates 67 "pain schools" across the country. Veterans who suffer from chronic pain are taught about nutrition, sleep, exercise, breathing, visualizations, relaxation and stress. The five-week, 15-hour course focuses on factors that can make pain better or worse, the report said. For instance, veterans learn how to respond to stress with relaxation techniques that begin with slow, deep breathing to bring down their heart rate.

The VA has been developing its pain management program for almost two decades. One of its goals is to help veterans reduce or stop using opioids and other drugs to control pain. The Bedford VA Medical Center in Massachusetts, which runs one of the pain schools, has the third-lowest opioid prescribing rate among VA medical facilities in the country, psychologist Tu Ngo, who heads the pain program there, told the publication.

However, the pain schools don't work for everyone. Ngo says about half of the students drop out of the course before it ends. She says many veterans are scared to try something other than pain medications, although opioids may not be effective for long-term, chronic pain.

Although pain management programs like the VA's are not widely available to most Americans, Rollin Gallagher, M.D.,  the national pain management director for the Veterans Health Administration, suggests that primary care doctors work with specialists and the patient to create a plan that puts the patient in charge of managing their pain. 

"Once you sit down and explain what pain is and how it works, what makes it worse and better, and how an individual can manage that interaction between mind, body and brain, I think it really does help them," Gallagher told the publication.

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