Wartime appears to increase the risk of chronic pain for military women, a new study suggests.

Active-duty servicewomen who served between 2006 and 2013 – a period of heightened combat deployments – had a significantly increased risk of chronic pain compared to women serving at other times, according to results published July 5 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Likewise, female family members of military personnel serving in 2006-2013 also were more likely to experience chronic pain, researchers found.

“I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect we observed here, particularly among female civilian spouses,” lead researcher Dr. Andrew Schoenfeld, an orthopedic surgeon with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in a news release. “This underscores an overlooked aspect of deployment schedules that the Military Health System must recognize.”

About 21% of U.S. adults experience chronic pain, which can persist for months to years, researchers said in background notes.

For the new study, researchers analyzed Military Health System medical records for nearly 3.5 million women 18 to 64 from 2006 to 2020. Nearly 325,000 women (9%) had a diagnosis of chronic pain.

Researchers divided the women into two groups — those treated from 2006 to 2013, a period of more intense combat exposure, and those treated from 2014 to 2020, when there was significantly less combat exposure.

Women in active service from 2006 to 2013 had a 53% higher likelihood of chronic pain than those who served from 2014 to 2020, results show.

About 15% of active-duty servicewomen had chronic pain during the earlier period, compared with 7% during the latter period, researchers found.

A similar pattern emerged among females in military families – an 11% rate of chronic pain in the earlier period, compared with 4% during the latter period.

Researchers also found links between chronic pain and factors like mental health or economic status.

“Populations from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and those with preexisting mental health conditions often encounter more barriers to accessing medical and behavioral health services, which can worsen and prolong their suffering,” Schoenfeld said. 

Researchers next plan to investigate how chronic pain affects the use of prescription opioids among military women. They also hope to conduct studies to better understand the long-term effects of military deployment on health.

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more about chronic pain.

SOURCE: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, news release, July 5, 2024

Source: HealthDay

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