USA — Doctors Use Acupuncture as Newest Battlefield Tool

WASHINGTON — J.D. Nichols, a retired Navy flight offi­cer and cryp­tol­o­gist, limped into the Air Force Acupunc­ture Cen­ter at Joint Base Andrews in Mary­land ear­ly yes­ter­day morn­ing, lean­ing heav­i­ly on a cane.

Air Force Acupuncture Center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland
John F. Bil­sky Sr. receives acupunc­ture for pain from a mil­i­tary doc­tor dur­ing a work­shop at the Air Force Acupunc­ture Cen­ter at Joint Base Andrews in Mary­land, Dec. 9, 2010. The pur­pose of the class was to teach bat­tle­field acupunc­ture to mil­i­tary physi­cians from Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter.
DOD pho­to by Cheryl Pel­lerin
Click to enlarge

A cou­ple of hours lat­er, mov­ing eas­i­ly with­out the cane and with the ends of tiny gold nee­dles glit­ter­ing in both ears, he waved good­bye to the mil­i­tary doc­tors who had reduced his pain using a tech­nique called bat­tle­field acupuncture. 

The doc­tors, from Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter, were part of a work­shop on the tech­nique devel­oped by Dr. Richard Niemt­zow, a retired Air Force colonel who prac­ticed med­i­cine as a radi­a­tion oncol­o­gist before he stud­ied acupunc­ture in 1994. 

Nichols was one of four patients who vol­un­teered for treat­ment at the 779th Med­ical Group’s acupunc­ture clin­ic, where Niemt­zow and Dr. Stephen Burns, a retired Air Force colonel and full-time Air Force acupunc­tur­ist, train mil­i­tary doc­tors and treat patients. 

“I walked yes­ter­day and I bare­ly made it home with the cane. That’s how much pain there was,” Nichols told the doc­tors after his treat­ment. “Now I’m walk­ing with­out pain, as though I did­n’t have the prob­lem.” “You said you felt like you could walk a mile,” Niemt­zow said. “Would you have said that this morn­ing when you first came here?” “I did­n’t think I was going to make it to the car,” Nichols said. 

Niemt­zow esti­mates that he and Burns have trained 60 physi­cians so far this year at Andrews and at Air Force and Army bases in Ger­many, Korea, Wash­ing­ton, Flori­da and Alas­ka. “The Air Force Acupunc­ture Cen­ter is the first facil­i­ty of its kind in DOD ever,” Air Force Col. (Dr.) John Bax­ter said. “It is a full-time acupunc­ture facil­i­ty, and not only is it here to treat patients, it’s here to teach oth­er providers and to do research.” 

Bax­ter is direc­tor of the Pen­ta­gon Flight Med­i­cine Clin­ic and a cre­den­tialed acupunc­tur­ist. Acupunc­ture is being used as a treat­ment every­where in the Defense Depart­ment, “but the Air Force led the way with two for­mal train­ing pro­grams of 20 physi­cians each,” Bax­ter said. “The Navy has one train­ing pro­gram with 20 physi­cians and efforts are under­way to have anoth­er tri-ser­vice train­ing program.” 

Heal­ers in Chi­na and oth­er Asian coun­tries have prac­ticed acupunc­ture for thou­sands of years. Accord­ing to tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine, dis­ease is due to an inter­nal imbal­ance of the oppos­ing forces of yin and yang. Such an imbal­ance is believed to lead to a block­age in the flow of qi [pro­nounced chi], the vital life ener­gy that flows along path­ways called merid­i­ans, the phi­los­o­phy says. 

Merid­i­ans con­nect all sys­tems in the body through a web-like matrix of at least 2,000 acupunc­ture points. Acupunc­ture is believed to unblock that vital ener­gy. Treat­ing patients involves pen­e­trat­ing the skin with thin, sol­id metal­lic nee­dles that are manip­u­lat­ed by the hands or by elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion. The prac­tice is con­tro­ver­sial among some in the Unit­ed States, but the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health rec­og­nizes acupunc­ture as evi­dence-based ther­a­py that works for many kinds of med­ical con­di­tions, Bax­ter said. 

Sci­en­tists are study­ing the effi­ca­cy of acupunc­ture for a range of con­di­tions, accord­ing to the Nation­al Cen­ter for Com­ple­men­tary and Alter­na­tive Med­i­cine in Bethes­da, Md. Accord­ing to the 2007 Nation­al Health Inter­view Sur­vey, which includ­ed a sur­vey of com­ple­men­tary and alter­na­tive med­i­cine use by Amer­i­cans, 3.1 mil­lion U.S. adults and 150,000 chil­dren had used acupunc­ture in the pre­vi­ous year. 

And in June, the Army sur­geon gen­er­al released a report that rec­om­mend­ed “a holis­tic, patient-cen­tered approach” to pain man­age­ment that uses all kinds of ther­a­py, from con­ven­tion­al med­i­cine to “com­ple­men­tary and alter­na­tive modes such as acupunc­ture, med­i­ta­tion, biofeed­back, yoga and oth­ers.” In tra­di­tion­al acupunc­ture, prac­ti­tion­ers use all 20 or so merid­i­ans. For bat­tle­field acupunc­ture, Niemt­zow uses only five points on each ear. Small, 1‑millimeter gold or stain­less steel nee­dles are insert­ed and stay in place until they fall out or the patient removes them sev­er­al days later. 

The pos­i­tive effects, Burns said, “last two hours, two days, two weeks, two months or two years — we’ve seen every­thing.” Most patients receive three to four treat­ments over sev­er­al months and come to walk-in acupunc­ture clin­ics, held on Tues­days and Thurs­days, if their pain returns. “Doc­tor Niemt­zow devel­oped the tech­nique over many years of work­ing with patients,” Bax­ter said. 

“He local­ized five points and pri­or­i­tized them into a pro­to­col that any provider can use, with­out know­ing any­thing else, like on a bat­tle­field when you’ve got some­one in seri­ous pain,” he added. “It will take you five min­utes or less and chances are you’re going to dras­ti­cal­ly reduce that patient’s pain.” Before the work­shop began, Niemt­zow said, “All the patients we see at the U.S. Air Force Acupunc­ture Cen­ter have not respond­ed well to West­ern med­i­cine.” Many patients “have com­pli­cat­ed med­ical prob­lems and tra­di­tion­al med­i­cine has­n’t helped them. They’ve been to the ortho­pe­dic sur­geon, to tra­di­tion­al pain man­age­ment clin­ics, to neu­rol­o­gists and der­ma­tol­o­gists and they’ve tak­en drugs for pain relief,” he said. 

“The major­i­ty of patients come to our clin­ic seek­ing relief from pain. The pain med­ica­tion they’re tak­ing has not been sat­is­fac­to­ry or they’ve not respond­ed well,” Niemt­zow said. “For many patients it is a last resort, but our suc­cess rate is very high here, which is very reward­ing for the patient and also for myself and Doc­tor Burns,” he added. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Chris­t­ian Han­ley, also a cre­den­tialed acupunc­tur­ist, said acupunc­ture has­n’t replaced tra­di­tion­al med­i­cine, but it’s a very good adjunct. “This is a great gift we’ve been giv­en,” he said, “so we take it and use it.” 

Dur­ing the work­shop, the doc­tors treat­ed three more patients, all of whom left the clin­ic with less pain than they arrived with. “Nowhere in my expe­ri­ence of med­i­cine in all these years have we had so many peo­ple walk­ing away hap­py right from our inter­ac­tion,” Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Dan Balog said. Balog, who prac­tices psy­chi­a­try and fam­i­ly med­i­cine at the 79th Med­ical Group at Andrews, has used acupunc­ture on patients he treats for anx­i­ety and depres­sion. “It’s pret­ty reward­ing from the clin­i­cal side to see this,” he said, adding that acupunc­ture is also an avenue for patients who already take a lot of med­ica­tions. With mul­ti­ple med­ica­tions, Balog said, “there’s a lot of col­lat­er­al dam­age that we don’t always anticipate.” 

“There are peo­ple who still doubt this and I think they always will,” Niemt­zow said, “but for us who are in the clin­ic every day, we see peo­ple suf­fer­ing from the war and from this or that and there’s noth­ing left to offer them. And we can put 50-cent nee­dles in an individual’s ear, and they look at you and smile and say, ‘my God, I feel bet­ter!” “The ques­tion that comes to my mind is,” Bax­ter said, “if you can make the major­i­ty of patients bet­ter dur­ing their clin­ic vis­it with­out med­i­cines, then why are you still treat­ing patients the old way? 

“We cer­tain­ly would nev­er go back [to prac­tic­ing with­out acupunc­ture],” he said, “and I think the future for acupunc­ture will be bright.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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