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Study Findings Support VA Increasing Complementary and Alternative Medicine Options for Veterans with Chronic Pain


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is becoming more widespread and is most commonly used to treat musculoskeletal problems, including back and neck pain, joint pain, and arthritis. An estimated 25 to 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and Veterans experience pain at rates exceeding those observed in the general public. Approximately half of civilian primary care patients with chronic pain have used at least one type of CAM treatment; however, less is known about factors associated with CAM use or the level of Veteran interest in using CAM treatment options. As part of the “Study of the Effectiveness of a Collaborative Approach to Pain,” investigators surveyed 401 Veterans with chronic (non-cancer) pain about their prior use of, and their willingness to try four CAM treatments: massage, chiropractic care, herbal medicines, and acupuncture. Investigators also examined whether demographic characteristics, VA treatment satisfaction, common pain-related characteristics (i.e., pain intensity, disability, depression), or overall disease burden distinguished CAM users from non-users. Patients were recruited for this study between 1/06 and 1/07, and had received primary care at one of five VAMCs (three urban, two rural) in the Pacific Northwest.

Findings showed that 82% of Veterans reported previously trying CAM therapy, and nearly all were willing to try one or more of the four CAM treatment options in the study survey. Chiropractic care was the least preferred CAM therapy, whereas massage was the most preferred option (75% vs. 96%, respectively). Compared to Veterans who did not use CAM therapy, CAM users were less likely to have service-connected disabilities (68% vs. 54%), and reported having spent a larger percentage of their lives in pain (20% vs. 26%). Investigators detected few differences between Veterans who had tried CAM therapy and those who had not, suggesting CAM may have broad appeal among Veterans with chronic pain. Moreover, study results did not show differences in treatment satisfaction or pain treatment effectiveness ratings between the two groups. This suggests that Veteran patients with chronic pain may use CAM as an additional tool in pain management, rather than as a reaction to perceived inadequacies of conventional care.

Denneson L, Corson K, and Dobscha S. Complementary and alternative medicine use among Veterans with chronic non-cancer pain. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development 2011;48(9):1119-28.

This study was partly funded by HSR&D (PMI 03-195). All authors are part of HSR&D’s Portland Center for the Study of Chronic, Comorbid Mental and Physical Disorders.

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HSR&D requires notification by HSR&D-funded investigators about all articles accepted for publication. These journal articles are reviewed by HSR&D and publication briefs or summaries are written for a select number of articles that are then forwarded to VHA Central Office leadership to keep them informed about important findings or information. Articles to be summarized are selected by HSR&D based on timeliness of the findings, interest of leadership, or potential impact on the organization. Publication briefs are written for only a small number of HSR&D published articles. Visit the HSR&D citations database for a complete listing of HSR&D articles and presentations.