Pain is the most common factor veterans experience before dying by suicide, study shows

Abbie Bennett
October 31, 2019 - 12:19 pm

Photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher Morales

The reasons a veteran has for taking their life are varied and often complicated. About 20 die by suicide each day. 

But a recent Department of Veterans Affairs study shows physical pain is a leading risk factor for suicide.

Veterans develop chronic pain at higher rates than civilians and report greater pain severity. They also die by suicide at a rate of 1.5 times that of the general population. 

A study from the VA Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention's Behavioral Health Autopsy Program published in the Journal of Pain showed that "pain is the most common factor veterans experience before they die by suicide." 

The study analyzed more than a quarter-million veterans' average pain intensity scores the year after they received specialty help with their pain to determine if the level of pain they had was associated with suicide attempts.

Using data from 2012 to 2014, the study showed that "moderate" and "severe" pain over the course of a year increased a veteran's risk of a suicide attempt, even after accounting for other factors that could contribute to suicide. 

Those with the highest pain intensity had lower survival rates than those with "mild" or no pain. 

"This close correlation between pain intensity and suicide risk and death rates suggests that reducing pain, or the perception of that pain, can help prevent veteran suicide" and "may help identify at-risk veterans," according to the study. 

In a news release about the study, VA said it had multiple treatment options to help veterans reduce pain, including: 

  • Physical therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic pain
  • Chiropractic care
  • Medication such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories and injections
  • Opioid medication

VA also recommended strategies to improve psychological wellbeing that can help veterans cope with pain, including: 

  • "Be honest about the pain you're experiencing."
  • "Pace your activities."
  • Be mindful and consider meditation or other practices to help "prevent pain from taking over your thoughts." 

For more information, resources and advice on chronic pain, go to VA's Pain Management page. 

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett

Veteran disability benefits, retirement get cost-of-living increase

VA removed battlefield crosses from cemeteries. This bill protects them.

Veterans demand answers after reports White House delayed new Agent Orange diseases decision