Sitting in the Defense Department’s only acupuncture clinic with needles sticking in his ears and wires wrapped around his feet, Staff Sgt. Samuel Darwin admitted the acupuncture was his big idea.
He suggested it to his doctor after sharp foot pain he’s suffered since February just wouldn’t disappear.
Darwin goes twice a week for treatments and sometimes draws stares from airmen in his squadron when he returns with the acupuncture needles still in his ears.
His doctor first prescribed traditional pain medications, but Darwin wanted to try acupuncture since he’d grown up with it — his mother was a fan — and found it worked.
“The guys in my squadron want to know if it works, which I tell them it does,” said Darwin, assigned to the 316th Comptroller Squadron. “Some guys, though, joke that I just want to have earrings in the military.”
However, more airmen might soon join Darwin as acupuncture — a treatment that dates back 5,000 years — is catching on in Air Force medical circles.
The Air Force surgeon general is starting a pilot program in March to teach “battlefield acupuncture” to 32 Air Force doctors who will deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan by 2010.
Col. Richard Niemtzow, an Air Force physician for 28 years, started practicing acupuncture in 1994. He designed the battlefield acupuncture treatments to help airmen deal with physical and mental pain inside the war zone. The treatments even include needles barely a centimeter long so they won’t fall out when airmen wear their Kevlar helmets.
Niemtzow’s treatment is a modern interpretation of the traditional Chinese approach. It’s not designed to treat specific injuries, but the entire body. Short, thin needles that look like gold studs are inserted into the ears to help interrupt pain signals traveling through the central nervous system, said Niemtzow, a senior adviser to the Air Force surgeon general.
Niemtzow and Col. Stephen Burns, Andrews’ acupuncture clinic chief, have trained other doctors in acupuncture and treated troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, when other traditional treatments have failed.
Lt. Col. Terri Riutcel, an Air Force psychiatrist, used Niemtzow’s battlefield treatments in Iraq last year, where they were effective, Niemtzow said.
Acupuncture helped troops deal with traumatic injuries such as burns and severed limbs as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and general aches and pains, he said. Niemtzow said he is eager to train more doctors to use acupuncture and get them to the war zone to see if his battlefield acupuncture treatments continue to work.
So is the Air Force.
“The Air Force wants to wait and see how it works,” said Betty-Anne Mauger, an Air Force surgeon general spokeswoman. There are no plans yet to open acupuncture clinics outside Andrews, she said.
Niemtzow gears his acupuncture treatments at Andrews, just like those on the battlefield, to getting airmen back on duty quickly with as few treatments as possible.
He and Burns insert small acupuncture needles into patients’ ears and then stimulate the area in pain with an electronic pulse. The treatments vary in length. One treatment, to alleviate lower back pain for Bill Bunch, a former airman who now works as a contractor at Andrews, lasted only two minutes. Bunch, who came in complaining that it hurt his back just to stand, walked out of the clinic pain-free.
“I’ve done physical therapy for a while but nothing has worked until I tried this,” he said after the treatment. “After a session here, the pain goes away immediately.”
Niemtzow started the clinic at Andrews in 2002. He and Burns, who joined the clinic in 2004, have treated hundreds of military members and their families. Burns said the walk-in clinic averages 10 to 15 patients a day.
Since treatments are free at the clinic, it attracts military retirees and others from outside the D.C. metropolitan area that includes the air base.
Tricare doesn’t cover off-base acupuncture treatments “because it’s considered unproven,” said Austin Camacho, a spokesman for the insurance provider.
In Washington, D.C., treatments generally range from $55 to $100 per visit, said Dennis Barrow, an acupuncturist near Walter Reed Medical Center.
The bills can add up when a patient needs multiple treatments per week, Burns said.
Niemtzow and Burns acknowledge doubts still exist over acupuncture, but remain confident that the $1 million invested by the Air Force to teach more doctors how to practice acupuncture is a step toward it becoming more broadly accepted across the service.
“Look at the people we are helping here, and think how many more we could help,” Niemtzow said.