After decades of treating veterans suffering chronic pain from combat and service connected disabilities, the military has finally embraced alternative medicine and it is working! Although the verdict is out on whether acupuncture for pain relief will replace traditional medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs is investing personnel and patience to wean veterans off of addictive painkillers.
If acupuncture should prove effective in managing chronic pain in our nation’s veterans, the impact would be startling. Not only would the Department of Veterans Affairs save billions of dollars spent on pharmaceuticals, but the caseload for military medical and mental health doctors would decrease significantly. Service men and women who receive acupuncture for pain relief might be able to seek and maintain gainful and meaningful careers and experience longer and more productive pain free lives.
From traumatic brain injuries and loss of limbs to debilitating spine and skeletal damage, America’s service men and women sometimes pay a high price to keep our nation safe. Many suffer decades-long episodes of chronic pain from service-connected permanent injuries and disabilities, including PTSD. Traditionally, the VA employs physicians and therapists to treat chronic and debilitating pain with strong narcotics like hydrocodone, oxycodone, tramadol, and gabapentin. However prolonged use of opiates can result not only in addiction, but also a gradual deterioration of vital organs like the liver, lungs and kidneys. None of these opiates have proven to provide lasting pain relief and indeed, some have resulted in chemical dependency and psychological or physiological side effects.
According to an article published in 2013, “prescriptions of four potent opiates to veteran have more than tripled since 9/11.” The same article asserted that instead of alleviating chronic combat or service-connected pain, the VA has a habitually advocated and prescribed strong painkillers like morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone—a practice that has led to drug addiction, overdosing and in some cases, death. A Center for Independent Research analysis of data gathered through the Freedom of Information Act reported that VA opiate prescriptions had increased by 270 percent since 2003 and that chemical dependency among veterans is twice that of the general population.
The system of pain management at the Department of Veterans Affairs is obviously broken. However, in spite of these daunting statistics, the U.S. military is striving to not only alleviate chronic pain and chemical addiction, but offer veterans an alternative to addictive opiates and painkillers. In addition to recommending alternative therapies, like yoga, relaxation, and creative therapy, the Air Force has launched an aggressive attack on chronic conditions with acupuncture for pain relief.
An ancient Chinese method of relieving pain through the application of needles inserted into the body’s pressure points, acupuncture allegedly works on the nervous system to regulate sensory receptors and alleviate pain. Since the 1970s, Americans have turned to alternative medicine like acupuncture to relieve chronic pain, heal sports injuries, treat mental illness, and more.
The military’s first step in its war against chronic pain was to implement a new initiative to encourage military medical personnel and patients to try alternative medicine methodologies like meditation, relaxation therapy, art therapy, and acupuncture for pain relief. The Opioid Safety initiative trains military health care providers on how to assess when a veteran is addicted to opiates and how to wean patients from drug dependency by prescribing alternative medication and therapies.
In 2013, the Air Force put acupuncture on the front line for pain management and the results have been positive. Air Force pilots who are prohibited from taking prescribed or over the counter opiates and painkillers because they impair alertness and mental acuity were some of the first to try out acupuncture for pain relief. Small needles inserted into the ear lobes of military personnel deliver continual relief to sufferers of back pain or lumbar spasms—all without interfering with one’s ability to function at an optimum performance level. Service men and women plagued by decades of debilitating pain may now be able to get relief without the threat of addiction or organ damage.
In collaboration with the Helms Medical Institute of Berkeley, California, the Air Force employs two full time military physicians trained in Chinese and Korean techniques: Dr. Richard Niemtzow and Lt. Col. Timothy Kaczmar.
The Air Force’s efforts to bring acupuncture treatment for pain to active duty, disabled and retired military personnel also included opening the only full time acupuncture clinic in the VA at Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. In 2014, a program was implemented to train 30 military doctors how to use acupuncture both on the battlefield and at base clinics. Plans include expanding training to other branches of the military and offering medical acupuncturist certification to 60 active-duty military physicians.
While some scoff at acupuncture’s ability to relieve chronic pain effectively, the military is experiencing a 60 percent success rate which could increase as alternative treatments are implemented. Dr. Richard Niemtzow stresses that “acupuncture is no magic bullet,” but a combination of traditional and alternative medicines is yields positive and longer lasting results. Stationed at Kandahar Air Field’s Air Force medical clinic, Lt. Col. Timothy Kaczmar has employed battlefield acupuncture and traditional techniques to help patient alleviate chronic pain. He advocates acupuncture in combat due to its ability to alleviate pain while keeping soldiers alert and combat-ready.
As a result of ongoing military efforts, VA patients undergoing acupuncture treatment for pain report experiencing better management of chronic pain. Headaches are disappearing, debilitating back pain is lessening and PTSD is being managed. Most importantly, veterans who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of their nation no longer have to pay the price of chronic pain and predisposition to prescription drug addiction.