Local VA clinics reduce opioid use for Veterans with alternative treatment

GREENVILLE, NC (WITN) Every year more than 200,000 people die from opioid overdoses and even more are dependent on them or misuse them, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Department of Veteran Affairs is trying to combat this issue for our nations heroes and they are doing it in a unique way as a medication designed to manage pain has become one of the leading causes of drug abuse and overdoses.

Navy Veteran Peter Johnson knows that firsthand. He says, "In 2015 I was put in the hospital in Durham because I was taking so many opioids and when I came to, and I stayed there for almost a month I told the doctors I would rather die than take anymore opioids."

Johnson began his journey with opioids after he joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, assigned to work on riverboats.

Johnson says, "In February of 1968 we were hit by an RPG rocket and I was severely wounded in my head and left eye."

The RPG left Johnson with a traumatic brain injury, ending his career in the Navy and leaving him to deal with a lifetime of pain caused by migraines and spinal stenosis.

Johnson says, "I was on dilaudid, vicodin, and percocet. Percocet for probably the last 20 years."

After his 2015 hospital stay Johnson says he stopped taking all opioids and began looking for an alternative to help manage his pain.

He says, "I had given up. I had given up hope. Matter of fact, when I came in here when they checked me in here I said to them I'm not here for drugs or benefits, I'm 100%, I'm here for help."
Johnson is not alone. The opioid health crisis started long ago, but it has seen rapid growth over the last five years.

Dr. Amba Jonnalagadda, Associate Chief of Staff at the Greenville and Morehead City VA Centers, says, "In an effort to help people feel better- the idea used to be if the medicine's not working we'll go up in the medicine or we'll add another medicine. Just like cooking, if you add more salt you know an entree doesn't get better, it actually gets worse if you add too much and that's kind of the same concept with pain management."

This is why the Department of Veteran Affairs is now taking steps to lower the amount of opioids that are being prescribed, down 41% nationwide in the last five years.

Part of the whole health model means offering Veterans medication tapering tools, psychotherapy and physical therapy. But it also give Veterans the option for alternative pain management like yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture.

This is where Dr. Michael Freedman comes in.

Dr. Freedman is a neurologist at the Greenville VA Health Care Center who uses acupuncture to treat pain, instead of opioids.

Dr. Freedman says, "Acupuncture works in ways all of which we don't understand, but one way it's clear it does work results in the release of your own endorphines."

Depending on the medical issue and where pain is located, tiny needles are inserted and can help relieve pain..

Even those skeptical of how and if acupuncture works, like Air Force Veteran Robert Howard, say they are now believers.

Howard says, "There is five piercings in each ear and it goes back and forth in each ear and somewhere in between there I started feeling better and by the time the treatment was over I felt like I could walk down that hallway and do cartwheels."

Johnson says, "When I walk in there I'm almost crying and when I leave I could dance down the hallway."

For these Veterans, the decision to stop taking opioids was life changing and why the VA says they've started encouraging Veterans to look to other options besides opioids.

The Deptartment of Veteran Affairs says that more than 2 million Veterans deal with chronic pain and over a third are prescribed opioids. In the last five years the VA clinics in Durham, Greenville and Morehead City reduced those prescriptions by 39 percent.