FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Air Force providers are using acupuncture as an effective holistic treatment option for pain relief, even in combat settings.
Prescribing pain medication to treat both acute and chronic pain is the traditional treatment. Unfortunately, the side effects of these medications can impede an Airman’s ability to complete their mission, and opioid pain medications can be dangerously habit forming. In searching for other methods to control pain, providers developed battlefield acupuncture techniques.
“Sometimes increased use of pain medication has been shown to have diminished effects and require additional medication,” explained Dr. Richard Niemtzow, a retired Air Force Col. and developer of battlefield acupuncture (BFA) techniques. “This is just one of the many reasons why it is so important to search for alternative treatments to work in conjunction with traditional pain management.”
Niemtzow and his team specifically worked on bringing BFA to the military and tested its efficacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a type of ear acupuncture, or auricular acupuncture, which treats acute and chronic pain. This type of acupuncture localizes needles to the ear and is used to complement traditional treatment.
“What makes BFA different is that it is safe, easily teachable, and a highly effective treatment option,” said Niemtzow.
Utilizing BFA increases treatment options for Airmen downrange.
“BFA is portable in nature and does not require a lot of people to operate,” said Niemtzow. “Using this form of treatment would be an ideal alternative when considering the potential harm that the overuse of pain medication has on patients.”
Niemtzow worked with the Air Force on a study to determine if BFA is beneficial in a combat setting, with positive results. It assessed the feasibility of BFA, specifically focusing on how it works with the aeromedical evacuation system.
“We found that BFA did not interfere with the normal pre-flight preparation process and was an effective pain treatment option,” said Niemtzow.
With BFA localized only in the ears, it is easy to administer downrange. As Niemtzow explains, the patient does not have to lie down like other forms of acupuncture. This makes BFA ideal in austere combat environments where space and supplies are limited.
The treatment, much like other holistic options, is met with some resistance. Some have questioned acupuncture’s ability to actually treat pain and other health concerns such as post-traumatic stress.
“As we continue to study acupuncture, results have consistently shown how it can effectively treat pain, we hear less and less of that criticism,” said Niemtzow. “A recent study that examined BFA found that out of the nearly 600 patients who received acupuncture treatment, less than 10 patients reported no relief in pain.”
The potential benefits of BFA, especially when it comes to treating patients in a combat setting, could improve current treatment options where administering pain medication is not always a possibility.