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Acupuncture Treatment Helps Ease TBI Symptoms In Theater

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Retired Col. Richard Niemtzow applies an acupuncture needle into Master Sgt. Michelle Tancrede’s ear during a battlefield acupuncture course. (U.S. Air Force photo by Bahja J. Jones)

In a clinic at Joint Base Andrews, Md., military health care providers practiced treatments to relieve head pain. Instead of writing a prescription for medication, providers learned to use a treatment rooted in traditional Chinese medicine and practiced for thousands of years: acupuncture. Retired Air Force Col. Richard C. Niemtzow, former president of American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, trained providers to locate pressure points within the ears and insert small needles on designated points inside them.

I spoke with Niemtzow about battlefield acupuncture, a technique that has advanced from the doctor’s office to the battlefield, treating service members with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) quickly and efficiently. The practice can interrupt the process of pain in the central nervous system.

“Like western medicine, it’s another tool in a medical bag,” Niemtzow said.

The tool was supported by Department of Veterans Affairs for a formal study on acupuncture’s effectiveness on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mTBI. The department’s recent clinical guidance recommends acupuncture as a supplementary therapy for PTSD, anxiety, pain and sleeplessness.

Air Force Col. Stephen Sharp, Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) deputy director of TBI clinical standards of care, spoke about the benefits of battlefield acupuncture. He worked with Niemtzow treating warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Md.

“The treatment is really useful for treating headache and sleep issues, as well as other associated pain,” said Sharp. “Additionally, it can be used to treat psychological health concerns, which can occur with mTBI.”

The technique uses only five points on each ear and can ease mTBI symptoms within minutes, which can help a service member recover faster and stay with their unit.

“The advantage of acupuncture in theater is that it’s quick, easily done and uses no equipment except a few tiny needles. It also doesn’t have the potential side effects of some medications,” said Sharp. “Often, treatment begins two to three times per week, and then weans down depending on response.”

As battlefield acupuncture continues to become more accessible to service members, a provider might be met with skepticism when offering a treatment involving needles to an unaccustomed service member (even though it’s painless). How can a provider convince a service member to try the unique therapy?

“Start treatment with auricular electrical acupuncture, because it is painless,” Niemtzow said. “Once the patient gains confidence that the acupuncture is helpful, reapproach the subject of needles.”

Auricular electrical acupuncture uses electrical stimulation on pressure points on the ear.

The journal Medical Acupuncture published Niemtzow’s article “Battlefield Acupuncture” and his update about acupuncture with electrical stimulation.

The American Forces Network Afghanistan recently released a video that shows the advantages of acupuncture therapy. We also wrote a blog post about the acupuncture program offered to service members and veterans at Deployment Health Clinical Center, a DCoE component center, and a blog post on complementary alternative medicine last week.

Comments (7)

  • Acupuncture_Orlando 05 Sep

    The usefulness of acupuncture has been proven over and over. It's awesome to see these techniques used on our troops! Steven D'Antonio of Whole Family Healthcare
  • Don "mallard" Layton 05 Sep

    From this martial artists point of view and former USN/USAF don't let anyone under estimate the use of acupuncture or acupressure, as noted it’s been around longer than western medicine.
  • Graham 05 Sep

    Great to hear about acupuncture, I love this method of treatment. Thanks for sharing the article with us.
  • DCoE Blog Editor 05 Sep

    Great feedback! Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts on this topic.
  • Steven 05 Sep

    It's great to see alternative medicine techniques used on our soldiers overseas and it actually making a difference!
  • MRCP 05 Sep

    Thanks for this great post. Yes acupuncture is always helpful, but this is new indication for me.
  • DCoE Blog Editor 05 Sep

    @MRCP, Thanks for sharing.

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