The United States is currently in the throes of an opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since 1999, 841,000 people have died of drug overdoses. In 2019, 70% of overdose deaths involved an opioid. And the problem seems to be getting worse.
The opioid crisis also extends to the US military. Combat puts U.S. troops and veterans at substantial risk of injury and exposure to prescription (and over-the-counter) opioids. It appears that soldiers who see combat are even more likely to develop an opioid addiction than deployed service members who never see battle, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, “Has the War on Terror Triggered an Opioid Epidemic?”
Resul Cesur, an associate professor of health care economics at the University of Connecticut and one of the study’s authors, wanted to understand if the opioid epidemic in the military was due to combat or if other factors were involved.
“Our evidence shows that the reason so many service members use opiates is because they are exposed in combat,” he said.
To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, between 2010 and 2016, 6,485 veterans of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Health System died of opioid-related causes.
A article in the Military Times reports that in 2015, VA officials reported seeing a 55% increase in opioid use disorder among veterans following combat operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In fiscal year 2016, the VA treated approximately 68,000 veterans for opioid addiction.
It seems logical that soldiers in a combat situation are confronted with sometimes catastrophic injuries. Beyond combat, they carry heavy equipment over rough terrain and live in less than ideal conditions. The number of service members who sustain mental and physical injuries as a result of military activities is significant. Many are prescribed opioids to help them cope with pain, but opioids are incredibly addictive and have serious side effects. Due to the problems associated with opioid addiction, the military began looking for alternatives.
Overmedication is a problem facing society as a whole, and the military is no exception. The military recognized that service members returning from combat, injured and suffering the devastating psychological effects of their experiences, needed an alternative to drugs, including narcotics.
In August 2009, the Army Surgeon General ordered the creation of a Pain Management Task Force to make recommendations for a comprehensive pain management strategy. The result report, completed in 2010, makes several recommendations, and acupuncture is at the forefront of treatment. Acupuncture has been shown to help relieve all types of pain, and it is now reportedly being introduced to help military personnel deal with acute and chronic pain to reduce the need for medication.
In 2001, Dr. Richard Niemtzow, while on active duty with the US Air Force, developed a specific auricular (ear) acupuncture point protocol. With needles inserted into the ears, these points provide “quick and highly effective relief from all types of pain.” The protocol is known as “battlefield acupuncture” and was designed as a technique to relieve pain through acupuncture as quickly and effectively as possible in combat and other military situations.
The military began testing acupuncture on the battlefield during airlifts of wounded soldiers, whereas until then the approach to pain had been medication. The designers of the program believed that if they could offer service members a more natural approach to their pain, they could avoid prescribing strong painkillers and help avoid the dangers of side effects and the risk of addiction later on.
In Eastern medical theory, the ear is a microcosm of the whole body, which means that every part of the body is represented and can be treated by the ear. Niemtzow said he specifically chose points known to influence pain processing in the central nervous system.
The Battlefield acupuncture protocol consists of five acupuncture points in the ear. There are several ways to stimulate the points in the ears. Very small needles can be inserted, tiny metal balls can be stuck to the tips and left on until they come off on their own (a day to a few days later), or whatever needles Niemtzow prefers to use, which look like tiny conical darts, are placed in the ears and can remain there for several days, falling out naturally. This allows the points to be continuously stimulated, helping to relieve pain beyond the patient’s appointment.
Below is a chart that illustrates the points used in the battlefield acupuncture protocol.
Niemtzow said relief occurs in 80 to 90 percent of cases, is usually immediate, and can last anywhere from minutes to months, depending on how long the points are stimulated and the patient’s unique pathology. He also said he’s seen battlefield acupuncture work for all types of pain and in many patients who don’t respond to Western painkillers.
He established a medical acupuncture clinic at Andrews Air Force Base and was the first full-time medical acupuncturist in the armed forces. He gave acupuncture to servicemen at Andrews, the Pentagon, the White House and the National Naval Medical Center.
A commitment to pain management
A article in the Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation reports that the Defense & Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management and the Veterans Health Administration National Pain Management Program Office in 2019 completed a three-year, $5.4 million acupuncture training program . The program has trained more than 2,800 battlefield acupuncture providers. One of the authors of the article said that at his VA facility, about 60 practitioners have been trained and have treated about 2,500 patients with battlefield acupuncture over the past two years. Another of the paper’s authors said that in his experience, battlefield acupuncture reduced pain for people with headaches, acute and chronic back pain, musculoskeletal skeletal pain, as well as neuropathic pain.
As an acupuncturist, I am well aware of the beneficial effects of acupuncture on a wide variety of conditions. decades of scientific studies validated the effectiveness of acupuncture, and it is now offered in renowned establishments such as the Cleveland Clinicthe Walter Reed National Military Medical Centerand even at the Pentagon.
Emma Suttie is an acupuncturist and founder of Chinese Medicine Living, a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy life in the modern world. She’s a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.