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As the U.S. military engagement continues overseas, officials are paying more attention to the weight of the gear that troops carry. Almost half of the disabling conditions suffered by U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are musculoskeletal injuries. The Veterans Administration says chronic low back pain, and degenerative arthritis of the spine, are most common. The military's effort to treat such injuries is an emerging field of trial and error.

Patricia Murphy, of member station KUOW, has this report on the weight of war.

PATRICIA MURPHY: Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely carry from 60 to more than a hundred pounds of gear, including body armor, weapons and batteries. The heavy loads shouldered over months of duty contribute to chronic pain suffered by many soldiers - like Specialist Joseph Chroniger, who deployed to Iraq in 2007.

At 25 years old, he has debilitating pain from a form of degenerative arthritis and bone spurs.

Specialist JOSEPH CHRONIGER (U.S. Army): I mean, my neck hurts every day, every day. You can't concentrate on anything but that, because it hurts that bad.

MURPHY: Like many soldiers and Marines, Chroniger shouldered 70 to 80 pounds of gear daily.

A 2001 Army Science Board study recommended no soldier carry more than 50 pounds for any length of time.

Spc. CHRONIGER: We were doing three, four, five missions a night sometimes, you know. You're jumping out; you're running, I mean, it hurts, it hurts.

MURPHY: Muscle strain is usually a short-term condition that's always been prevalent among soldiers. But after a decade of war, the number of acute injuries that have progressed to the level of chronic pain has grown significantly.

According to the VA, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who retire with musculoskeletal conditions grew tenfold between 2003 and 2009.

Colonel Stephen Bolt is chief of anesthesia at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. He says the Army has started deploying physical therapists to serve with some infantry brigades in combat areas.

Colonel STEPHEN BOLT (Chief of Anesthesia, Madigan Army Medical Center): The faster you can address some of those issues at the clinic level, then the less likely you are to see those injuries progress to a true chronic-pain state that's going to require them to be evacuated from theater and replaced by somebody else.

MURPHY: But that's a relatively new concept.

Colonel DIANE FLYNN (Chief of Pain Medicine, Madigan Army Medical Center): Primary care providers, who provide most of the pain management to patients, have had very limited tools in their toolbox. And it's medications, for the most part, and maybe physical therapy - but very little to offer in addition to that.

Colonel DIANE FLYNN (Chief of Pain Medicine, Madigan Army Medical Center): Primary care providers who provide most of the pain management to patients have had very limited tools in their toolbox and it's medications for the most part and maybe physical therapy, but very little to offer in addition to that.

MURPHY: In an effort to provide more options for pain management and lessen the dependence on prescription drugs, the Army is starting to incorporate other forms of treatment including yoga, meditation and acupuncture.

Dr. SHASHI KUMAR (Physiatrist, Madigan Army Medical Center): OK. I have three different size needles here, but since it's the neck area, I use the smallest size needle, which is 30 millimeter in length.

MURPHY: On a recent day at Madigan Army Medical Center, Chroniger lies facedown on an examination table. It's his first acupuncture treatment with physiatrist Dr. Shashi Kumar.

Ms. KUMAR: Does it feel to you that this is the right area?

Spec. CHRONIGER: Mm-hum.


MURPHY: Chroniger stiffens as Kumar inserts the small needles into his damaged neck.

It's too soon to tell in Chroniger's case, but Kumar says many of her patients report that regular acupuncture treatments help relieve some of their pain.

The Army surgeon general has directed medical centers to incorporate complementary and alternative medicine into patient treatment plans. Currently, such care at the Army's hospitals is limited. Those who seek private care will have to pay out of pocket.

Chroniger will take an early retirement from the Army. He'll then be eligible to apply for disability benefits from the VA.

For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.

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