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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

New Treatment for Veteran’s Health Care: Managing Pain with Mind-Body Therapies

by Dr. Deborah Norris

The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that in 2013, between 350,000 and 650,000 veterans lived in Maryland. Montgomery County has one of the highest veteran populations within the state with greater than 50,000 veterans; at least 5 percent of the population.

Compare that alongside another important statistic. One in three Americans suffers from chronic pain, at least 100 million adults; indicating a pervasive national healthcare concern. The current patient costs of treating pain exceed $560–$635 billion annually; with federal and state costs at almost $100 billion per year. Yet nearly half of all of those who suffer with chronic pain report that their pain is inadequately treated. Furthermore, current pharmacological treatments for pain are considered addictive and are currently under scrutiny for association with high rates of addiction in the U.S.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) reports that across the nation, approximately 16 percent of all veterans under care at a VA hospital are currently addicted to medications.

According to Dr. Robert D. Kerns, chief of psychology service at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, 50 percent of male Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) patients in primary care report chronic pain. The prevalence may be as high as 75 percent in female veterans. Pain is among the most costly disorders treated in VHA settings.

Chronic pain is especially prevalent in individuals who have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Up to 75 percent of military and civilian patients with TBI have chronic pain. TBI affects 20 percent of the over 1.6 million service members deployed to Afghanistan.

Effective treatments for chronic pain and pain related to TBI have been identified, and are currently being implemented in Veterans Health Care. The new evidence-basis for the evolution of the standard of care supports the use of self-care therapies of meditation, yoga, and tai chi for treatment of chronic pain. A 2013 review in the Clinical Journal of Pain identifies yoga as an effective treatment for chronic low back pain. The American Journal of Health Promotion provides a review of evidence for the use of tai chi and qigong for treating pain and other chronic conditions. And in a 2012  review in Neuroscience Letters, evidence for the brain mechanisms affected by mindfulness meditation for relief from pain was shown.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA has initiated a multifaceted approach to reduce the use of opioids among America’s veterans who use VA health care and to replace pharmacological treatment of pain with healthy lifestyle practices.   The Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI) is a comprehensive effort to improve the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from chronic pain through the use of self-care mind-body practices.

Launched in October 2013 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, OSI is already demonstrating success in lowering dependency on this class of drugs.  At eight sites of care in Minnesota, OSI practices have decreased high-dose opioid use by more than 50 percent. OSI incorporates the team approach with the goal of reducing opioid use by alleviating a Veterans’ pain using nonprescription methods.  There is an emphasis on patient education, close patient monitoring with frequent feedback and complementary and alternative mind-body practices.

To learn more about this program and other mind-body therapies, plan to attend Mind-Body Week D.C., April 17 to 19 at the Silver Spring Civic Center and The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda. Lectures and master classes will be offered by the nation’s leading experts in the treatment of pain, including Dr. Sara Lazar of Harvard University and Dr. Chen Chen Wang of Tufts University. Proceeds and donations support Veteran’s in attending this program for free. To register: visit To sponsor veterans to attend this program for free, call 301-986-1090 or contact [email protected]

Dr. Deborah Norris, Ph.D. is the founder of The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing mindfulness to all dimensions of life. For more information, visit 


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