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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Injured Veterans Are Ditching Opiate Painkillers for Old-School Treatments—and Finding Relief

6 Substance

Many soldiers have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD, concussions and traumatic brain injuries, mangled limbs and chronic pain—the result of roadside bombs and other guerilla explosives. The military and the Department of Veteran Affairs put a majority of these patients on narcotic painkillers like OxyContin. After risking their lives for their country, they have survived only to face a future of physical pain and mental anguish, trauma-induced violence, suicide and addiction.

Over the past five years, Walter Reed Army Hospital, the VA flagship research hospital, has been developing an alternative method of treatment in hopes of offering these patients an alternative to this grotesque scenario. This pain-management experiment does not come in pill form. It involves strategies that were used before opiate painkillers swept the market: physical therapy, behavior modification, individual counseling, acupuncture, yoga and other alternative practices. It may all sound like woo-woo, but Walter Reed is reporting some success. In 2009 80% of its injured vets were on narcotic drugs; today 10% are.

The alternative method of  pain management does not come in pill form. It involves strategies that were used before opiate painkillers swept the market.

The New York Times profiles one such veteran, Sgt. Shane Savage, to convey how the harrowing experience of living with these injuries, coupled with addiction, can drive a person to undertake these alternative strategies that require a lifetime of daily hard work.

Savage served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2011 to 2010. In his fifth and  tour, which involved leading a unit clearing roadside bombs, a truck he was riding in was blown apart by one of the bombs.

He was diagnosed with a severe concussion, PTSD and chronic pain—24 bones in one foot were crushed. Savage was prescribed a host of medications led by opiate painkillers. Although the drugs helped with the pain, they left him lethargic, uncommunicative and generally absent from the lives of his wife and two daughters. In the despair of addiction, he attempted suicide and was hospitalized.

Rather than face a lifetime of painkiller-induced mental fog, he began searching for alternative ways to manage his burden of pain and other symptoms. Although a VA pain program did not succeed, it helped set him on his path. Now he faces the amputation of his foot, but as hard as it may be for uninjured civilians to believe, his use of treatments from the pre-opiate-painkiller era have given him a renewed sense of hope.

In this video Savage explains how he got there: