Rise in Chronic Pain Affects Troops, Readiness

Rise in Chronic Pain Affects Troops, Readiness

Soldier running
Photo by: U.S. Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Roger Jackson

Chronic pain is a leading cause of disability and reduced readiness among active-duty service members, a Rand Corp. study that analyzed Military Health System data found.

Between 31% and 44% of active-duty service members experience chronic pain, the study found, and treatment is often complicated by conditions that coincide with chronic pain in service members with combat injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and behavioral health disorders. 

The study also found musculoskeletal conditions and injuries were the most prevalent sources of chronic pain for service members, reducing their medical readiness and performance.

The prevalence of chronic pain among active-duty service members is 1.5 to 2 times higher than the 20% of American adults who live with chronic pain, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Soldiers are particularly affected by chronic pain. Though numbers vary depending on how chronic pain is defined, one study indicated “the Army has much higher levels of chronic pain diagnoses than any other branch of service, including more than 4 times that of the Navy,” according to a study on chronic pain in the military

Up to 40% of veterans who deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom experienced a combination of chronic pain, PTSD and TBI, the Rand study found.

Veterans with chronic pain and PTSD used many more health-related disability days and were more likely to struggle with work effectiveness than veterans with chronic pain alone, the study found. 

“In a study of veterans with chronic pain, the presence of comorbid PTSD was associated with a nearly twofold increase in the number of health-related disability days in the prior month compared with chronic pain alone,” the study found. “Comorbid PTSD was also associated with a 75-percent increase in the number of pain-specific disability days and a significant decrease in work effectiveness among patients with chronic pain.” 

Though published studies about pain management in military health settings remain limited, “DoD and the MHS have made significant investments in improving the quality of chronic pain treatment for service members,” the study found.  

DoD invests in chronic pain research, and, as of 2019, “chronic pain research accounted for the majority of funds allocated to DoD’s pain management research portfolio.” 

Moving forward, the Rand study recommended DoD and the Military Health System “continue to invest in chronic pain research.” 

“Given that pain-related conditions are the leading cause of disability and reduced military readiness among service members, continued investment in pain research is needed to inform and improve MHS clinical strategies for pain management,” the study found. 

The study is available here.