U.S. military doctors train in acupuncture
Last updated 2-5-09 at 1:33 p.m.
By Kamala Lane
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Chief Warrant Officer James Brad Smith
broke five ribs, punctured a lung, and shattered bones in his
hand and thigh after falling more than 20 feet (6 meters) from
a Black Hawk helicopter in Baghdad last month.
While he was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center in Washington, D.C., his doctor suggested he add acupuncture
to his treatment to help with the pain.
On a recent morning, Col. Richard Niemtzow, an
Air Force physician, carefully pushed a short needle into a part
of Smith’s outer ear. The soldier flinched, saying it felt
like he “got clipped by something.” By the time three
more of the tiny, gold alloy needles were arranged around the
ear, though, the pain from his injuries began to ease.
“My ribs feel numb now, and I feel it a little less in my
hand,” Smith said, raising his injured arm. “The pain
isn’t as sharp. It’s maybe 50 percent better.”
Acupuncture involves placing very thin needles
at specific points on the body to try to control pain and reduce
stress. There are only theories about how, why, and even whether
Regardless, the ancient Chinese practice has been
gradually catching on as a pain treatment for troops who come
Now the Air Force, which runs the military’s only acupuncture
clinic, is training doctors to take acupuncture to the war zones
of Iraq and Afghanistan. A pilot program starting in March will
prepare 44 Air Force, Navy, and Army doctors to use acupuncture
as part of emergency care in combat and frontline hospitals, not
just on bases back home.
They will learn “battlefield acupuncture,” a method
Niemtzow developed in 2001 that’s derived from traditional
ear acupuncture but uses the short needles to better fit under
combat helmets so soldiers can continue their missions with the
needles inserted to relieve pain. The needles are applied to five
points on the outer ear. Niemtzow says most of his patients say
their pain decreases within minutes.
The Navy has begun a similar pilot program to train
its doctors at Camp Pendleton in California.
Niemtzow is chief of the acupuncture clinic at
Andrews Air Force Base. He’s leading the new program after
training many of the approximate 50 active duty military physicians
who practice acupuncture.
The U.S. military encountered acupuncture during
the Vietnam War, when an Army surgeon wrote in a 1967 edition
of Military Medicine magazine about local physicians who were
allowed to practice at a U.S.
Army surgical hospital and administered acupuncture to Vietnamese
Col. Arnyce Pock, the medical director of the Air
Force Medical Corps, said acupuncture comes without the side
effects that are common after taking traditional painkillers.
Acupuncture also treats pain quickly.
“It allows troops to reduce the number of narcotics they
take for pain and have a better assessment of any underlying
brain injury they may have,” Pock said. “When they’re
on narcotics, you can’t do that because they’re feeling
the effects of the drugs.”
Niemtzow cautions that while acupuncture can be effective,
it’s not a cure-all.
“In some instances it doesn’t work,” he said. “But
it can be another tool in one’s toolbox to be used in addition
to painkillers to reduce the level of pain even further.”
Ultimately, Niemtzow would like troops to learn acupuncture
so they can treat each other while out on missions.
For now, the Air Force program is limited to training
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