The College of Health at University of Utah Health has been awarded a six-year, $6.5 million grant to study non-drug treatment of back pain among active duty members of the military as part of a larger federal partnership with National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and 12 universities across the country.
“Back pain is the No. 1 non-cancer pain complaint for which people get prescriptions that can lead to misuse of opioids,” said Julie Fritz, associate dean of research and principal investigator on the project. “Back pain can be the gateway to addiction.”
Research to find viable alternatives to addictive pain medication is especially pressing in Utah, which ranked seventh in the U.S. for drug poisoning deaths from 2013 through 2015, according to the Utah Department of Health. Most Utahns who die from a drug-related death suffer from chronic pain and take prescribed medications. Misuse and addiction to opioids can lead to a host of additional concerns including homelessness.
Fritz, a faculty member in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletics, and her team of scientists at the University of Utah and military hospitals in Texas will study treatment options using a “stepped approach,” starting with broad and less costly treatments that could benefit a wide range of patients.
“We are trying to take a really holistic approach. We will start with patient education, sleep management, exercise and stress reduction,” Fritz said. “For those who don’t respond right away we could move into mindfulness, acupuncture and other non-pharmacological treatments.”
NIH Director Francis S. Collins said finding solutions for chronic pain is critically important, especially for military personnel and veterans who are disproportionately affected. “Bringing the science to bear through these real-world research projects will accelerate our search for pain management strategies for all Americans, especially as we work to address the nation’s opioid crisis.”
Studies report nearly 45 percent of soldiers and 50 percent of veterans experience pain on a regular basis, and there is significant overlap among chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and persistent post-concussive symptoms. 
Although opioids are often prescribed to treat chronic pain, research has not shown them to be very effective, and there are many issues with long-term use. Thus, there is a need for nondrug approaches to complement current strategies for pain management and to reduce the need for, and hazards of, excessive reliance on opioids.
Other universities participating in the project include Yale University, Northern California Institute for Research and Education, Palmer College of Chiropractic and Duke University.