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Heroin Addiction in Veterans

help with heroin addiction in veteransVery few veterans ever thought they would find themselves struggling with a heroin addiction, yet it’s a troubling trend that’s on the rise. According to Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), since 2002, the number of U.S. veterans suffering from opioid addiction has doubled.1

A variety of risk factors, including difficulty returning to civilian life, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain all increase the likelihood that veterans will fall into a pattern of substance abuse. The following article will discuss these risk factors in detail and provide advice for how loved ones can help a veteran struggling with addiction.

What are the Common Risk Factors of Heroin Use in Veterans?

Many veterans with substance abuse problems also have co-occurring disorders. These may include PTSD, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and depression. The stress of deployment to war-torn regions and the subsequent return back to the family unit creates additional challenges that veterans often feel ill-equipped to handle. In many cases, they turn to alcohol or drugs to help them cope.

Additionally, 65% of U.S. veterans suffer from some type of pain, and 9.1% categorize their pain as “severe.”It’s become common practice for physicians to prescribe high-dose opioids to assist veterans with combat-related injuries and the chronic pain they cause.

Giving veterans who are already struggling with other issues easy access to highly addictive narcotic drugs can open up the floodgates for a host of serious drug-related problems. Eventually, the prescribed dosage fails to keep up with a growing tolerance. As users begin to enjoy the mind-numbing effects narcotics bring, the need for more powerful drugs continues to grow. At this point, the jump from prescription opioids to heroin is an easy one to make.

What are the Signs of Heroin Addiction in Veterans?

It’s sometimes hard to tell if a veteran is struggling with substance abuse or is simply having difficulty dealing with day-to-day life. Some of the signs of heroin addiction that loved ones should look out for include:

  • Sudden behavior changes
  • Disorientation
  • Constricted pupils
  • Hyper-awareness followed by suddenly drifting off
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Presence of track marks on the arms
  • Abscesses or infections at injection points

The presence of paraphernalia like needles that aren’t for medical use, burnt spoons, and small plastic bags with a white powdery residue are also major red flags that need to be addressed.

How Loved Ones Can Help a Veteran Struggling with Addiction

It’s important for veterans who are struggling with opioid or heroin addiction to understand that they’re not alone. Loved ones can begin to help by offering their support and making themselves available to listen without judgment.

It’s often helpful to research rehab and treatment options before speaking with a loved one. This will make it easier to offer suggestions when the opportunity arises. Veterans have the ability to seek free substance abuse treatment through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) health care system. If they prefer, they may also explore other alternatives like non-profit or private treatment centers.

It’s important to encourage treatment without being too pushy. Remember that veterans may find it difficult to confront their problems with substance abuse. They’re likely to worry about the social stigma and feel concerned about their privacy. Many veterans also feel like admitting they have a problem is a sign of weakness. All of these concerns will need to be addressed before a veteran can feel comfortable seeking the help they need.

Research Sources:

  1. Veterans of Foreign Wars. (2019). VA’s Drug Abuse Stats Are Sobering.
  2. Nahin, Richard L. (2017). Severe Pain in Veterans: The Effect of Age and Sex, and Comparisons with the General Population. The Journal of Pain, 18(3), 247-54.
Last Updated on March 17, 2020
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Priscilla Henson, MD
Dr. Priscilla Henson is a Resident Physician specializing in Emergency Medicine at a community hospital in central California. She also serves as a member of the Pain Management Quality Improvement Committee through the same hospital. Part of the committee’s mandate is to work toward non-narcotic pain management alternatives.
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