The Growing Popularity Of Battlefield Acupuncture For Civilian And Military Applications

Pain is an inevitable consequence of military service for many servicemembers.

Long after their wounds have healed, military personnel hurt in battle can eventually suffer from chronic pain. For pain to develop an injury is not even a prerequisite; muscle and joint pain may develop over time due to the harshness of carrying equipment and heavy packs day after day.

At the battlefield acupuncture clinic, a participant sticks acupuncture needles into the ear of a volunteer patient. Participants at the workshop have all the opportunity to practice and to observe others practice the technique.

By studying the servicemembers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, researchers have concluded that the rate of return-to-duty for musculoskeletal disorders such as spinal pain is lower compared to any other condition except mental illness. Of the servicemembers who left their units who were diagnosed with back pain, only 13 percent returned to duty.

One of the biggest concerns is to treat pain on the battlefield in a manner that does not affect the ability of servicemembers to do their job.  This concern also one of the reasons that among military doctors, the use of battlefield acupuncture has grown more and more in recent years.

Doctors and patients are more than willing to try acupuncture in Fort Lauderdale if the insertion of small needles to the ear of a patient can bring about relief where prescription analgesics (painkillers) have failed.

Dr. Richard Niemtzow, a retired Air Force Colonel, was a practicing radiation oncologist and was also the 27th Medical Group’s chief of staff at the Cannon Air Force Base when someone put a brochure regarding acupuncture treatment on his desk.

Niemtzow said, “What got my attention was the fact that I often treat problems with lasers on acupuncture points. This aroused my interest, and eventually, I decided to take a course on medical acupuncture for doctors at UCLA.”

When it came to the management of pain, the doctor found the procedures he learned in class worked very well in practice that he decided to open up an acupuncture clinic in New Jersey at the McGuire Air Force Base. According to Niemtzow, “It immediately grew into one of the most popular clinics on the base”.

“Because I could address chronic headaches and chronic back pain problems, there were a lot of referrals.” Niemtzow explained, “They were referring them to me rather than referring them to Walter Reed.” He could see patients walking out of the clinic enjoying relief or even complete elimination of their pain for hours, weeks and even longer.

Auricular Acupuncture

Dr. Niemtzow developed the auricular acupuncture treatment in 2001. Because of its ability to administer it in less than favorable conditions, he named it battlefield acupuncture. The procedure entails the insertion of five very small gold needles into specific acupoints in the ear of a patient until the pain diminishes.

At the acupuncture clinic, a patient volunteer is utilized to show how five gold needles inserted at specified acupoints on the ear can lead to a significant reduction in pain.

Niemtzow says, “If you’re a doctor, it’s easy to get to the ear. And people do not want to remove their clothes.” Even if only 10 needles are used and within a very localized body part, the process will lead to a complete or partial alleviation of pain.

It can also be a very easy gateway by which other doctors can be trained in acupuncture therapy. Dr. Niemtzow is presently working in the Joint Base Andrews at the Air Force Acupuncture Center. He has been awarded with a $5.4 million funding and his job is to educate as many doctors as possible who want to learn the procedure.

Niemtzow explains, “Doctors may expect a course lasting three to four hours, during which they study about the history of the development of the protocol, learn where the acupoints are situated in the ear, and how they should handle these tiny needles—measuring millimeters lengthwise — basically sticking them into predetermined acupoints on the ear.” He added, “The doctors would learn how to practice safety techniques and learn about potential side effects.”

Around 500 doctors from the VA and military services have finished the course. Niemtzow was even a guest lecturer in Beijing, China where he also taught a course on battlefield acupuncture.  The Chinese military were so impressed by his knowledge and grasp of the technique that they invited him as well as six other military doctors to visit a Chinese air force base to demonstrate the procedure to their doctors.

Controlling the Overuse of Opioids

These days, it may come as a pleasant surprise to many that a lot of military doctors are willing to accept what is still claimed by many to be pseudo-science. However, the response of military doctors is that they’re willing to try any alternative treatment so long as it halts the tide of opioid use and overuse among veterans and in the military.

From 2001 to 2009, prescription analgesic abuse and prescriptions for powerful analgesics rose fourfold and is the second biggest reason servicemembers enter the substance abuse programs of the military.

Dr Nimetzow says, “The primary reason for this entire project is to use acupuncture to help lessen the use of opioids.” Is it cost effective? Can it be a great substitute to some habit-forming painkilling drug?” “Is there a quick return to duty? And when returning to duty, will they be safe?

Since the funding comes with a timeline of only two years, Niemtzow will need to answer these questions fast. The center will monitor doctors who have taken the course and observe how they integrate acupuncture into their own clinics.

Niemtzow says, “There was a resistance to acupuncture in the beginning. Most people consider it as pseudo-science and medical schools do not offer courses for it”. “But for healthcare providers, results are all that matters. So when doctors start to see patients getting better, they pay attention.” It became a huge success because the results can be duplicated, it is easy to learn and could be learned within a few hours, it is inexpensive, and very portable.”

However, not all people respond to this treatment.  There have been patients who found the treatment ineffective. Nonetheless, doctors who have adopted this protocol have found it works very well in patients for whom drugs have proven ineffective. Prescription drugs and acupuncture have also been combined so that patients can reduce their intake of painkillers.

According to Niemtzow “Every day, we’re getting requests from military bases across the country and even from other countries requesting to be educated in the therapy”.

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