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Air Force Physicians Being Trained in Acupuncture

Posted: January 30, 2009

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 from a Black Hawk helicopter in Baghdad last month. While he was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., his physician 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 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% 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 it might work. Regardless, the ancient Chinese practice has been gradually catching on as a pain treatment for troops who come home wounded.

Now the Air Force, which runs the military's only acupuncture clinic, is training physicians 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 physicians to use acupuncture as part of emergency care in combat and in 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 physicians at Camp Pendleton in California.