A veteran who was becoming dependent on opioids for his back pain credits the local VA medical center with weaning him off and finding a successful non-opioid alternative.

James Alberty, an Air Force veteran, was taking VA prescribed opioids for lower back pain due to a compression fracture. His use of opioids was “getting pretty bad,” and he asked for help from his medical team at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center.

Opioids include vicodin, norco, lortab, percocet, morphine, fentanyl and methadone.

Alberty was weaned off the drug and provided a non-opioid treatment with Neurolumen. The medical device, which is Food and Drug Administration approved, uses electrical stimulation, cold laser beams and light wavelength to reduce pain. 

“The electrical impulses, low level laser and low level light stimulates the nerves to the point where they respond better to the electrical impulses,” said Deborah Morrow, a licensed clinical social worker and pain clinic coordinator at the medical center.

Alberty said just one 30-minute session can make all the difference in the world.

He works in housekeeping at the medical center, and at the end of some days his back pain, from a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the worst pain possible, is an eight. 

“After just 30 minutes using Neurolumen my pain can be reduced to a two,” Alberty said.

He said that as he gets better at placing the pads over the right muscles and nerves, the faster his pain will be reduced.  

In 2012 just over 31 percent of all active prescriptions were opioid prescriptions, Morrow said, who started tracking those numbers at that time. 

Since then, the medical center has been on a concentrated course to reduce the number of opioids prescribed to veterans. This was accomplished by educating veterans and providers on the dangers of opioid addiction and dependency. 

Veterans were then weaned off their pain medication and introduced to non-drug relief like Neurolumen, tai chi, pain school, using relaxation and mindfulness training and breathing techniques.

Pain school is an educational program designed to help patients get basic information on chronic pain management, Morrow said. The school is a walk-in clinic that helps veterans put together a pain management plan. 

A six-session intensive program, Living Beyond Pain, focuses on how to do things in a way that works for the veteran instead of against the veteran.

As a result, five years later opioid prescriptions were reduced to 16.55 percent, Morrow said.

The medical center now limits opioid prescriptions to cancer pain, palliative care or short-term pain, she said. 

“Daily opioids sort of trick the brain into feeling better about having the pain but they generally don’t increase functioning and quality of life, which is what our chronic pain management is about,” Morrow said.

The medical center served 3,227 veterans from Muskogee County with 160 seen in the pain clinic and 44 diagnosed with an opioid issue. Of the 1,231 veterans from Cherokee County seen at the medical clinic, 54 visited the pain clinic and 20 were diagnosed with opioid issues.

McIntosh County had 1,101 veterans go to the medical center, 47 were seen in the pain clinic and seven were diagnosed with opioid issues. Of the 764 veterans seen from Sequoyah County, 29 were seen in the pain clinic and nine had issues with opioids.

Reach Mark Hughes at (918) 684-2908 or mhughes@muskogeephoenix.com.

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