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Acupuncture Being Used Increasingly By Military Physicians

January 30, 2009

The ancient practice of acupuncture has gained traction in recent years, taking steps toward being legitimized among medical professionals. Now, the practice is being increasingly used among the Air Force’s health providers as a way to reduce pain in troops who have been wounded in battle.

The Air Force runs the military’s only acupuncture clinic and has begun training doctors to use the practice on the field of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A pilot program starting in March will prepare 44 Air Force, Navy and Army doctors to use acupuncture as part of emergency care in combat, according to the Associated Press.

Chief Warrant Officer James Brad Smith can attest to the benefits of acupuncture. He returned from battle to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Having fallen 20 feet from a Black Hawk helicopter in Baghdad, Smith broke five of his ribs, punctured his lung and broke bones in his hand and thigh.

Recently, Air Force physician Col. Richard Niemtzow met with Smith to perform an acupuncture procedure. Niemtzow is responsible for the development of “battlefield acupuncture” in 2001. The technique uses shorter needles to better fit under combat helmets so soldiers can continue their missions with the needles inserted to relieve pain.

Revered by the ancient Chinese, acupuncture involves inserting small needles into specific points in the body in order to relieve pain.

During a recent procedure, Col. Niemtzow inserted gold alloy needles around Smith’s ear, and his pain began to subside.

“My ribs feel numb now and I feel it a little less in my hand,” Smith told the AP, raising his injured arm. “The pain isn’t as sharp. It’s maybe 50 percent better.”

Niemtzow said most of his patients say their pain decreases within minutes.

Now the Navy has begun trials of a program to train its physicians to use a form of acupuncture at Camp Pendleton in California.

According to AP, the US military first encountered acupuncture during the Vietnam War, when an Army surgeon wrote in a 1967 edition of Military Medicine magazine about local physicians who were allowed to practice at a U.S. Army surgical hospital and administered acupuncture to Vietnamese patients.

Niemtzow has been providing acupuncture for soldiers since 1995, when he worked at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Years later, he became the first full-time military medical acupuncturist for the Navy, which also provides health care for the Marines.

Niemtzow acknowledged that acupuncture will not cure a patient, but he referred to it as “another tool in one’s toolbox to be used in addition to painkillers.”

“In the beginning, many people were skeptical, but after seeing it demonstrated on patients and the benefits achieved — especially in the area of pain — the majority of physicians embraced it and learned how to use it in their practice as an adjunctive therapy,” said Niemtzow.

“The history of military medicine is rich in development,” he said, “and a lot of people say that if the military is using it, then it must be good for the civilian world.”

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