Acupuncture for War Trauma

Acupuncture entering army medical training particularly for concussion
As Olivier Lejus explains, this ancient Eastern technique has found new applications in treating wounded soldiers

Although acupuncture was first introduced in China over 3000 years ago, the use of this ancient oriental therapy is forever being expanded to treat new medical conditions.

Just recently, an article was published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Feb 12-13, 2011) on the topic of "battle acupuncture". This is a new technique, which has been developed by a US air force army doctor, Colonel Richard Niemtzow, for the treatment of American soldiers suffering from concussion in the war in Afghanistan.

His methods have proven so effective that the US navy has already trained 50 doctors in acupuncture, and the American National Institute of Health is currently considering the expansion of this therapy to speed recovery of wounded soldiers.

In the Afghanistan conflict, one of the most lethal weapons used by the insurgents is cheaply made small bombs, called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are hidden on the side of the road or inside buildings. The foreign soldiers who are in close proximity to these explosions are usually either killed or horribly mutilated. Even those who survive without any visible physical injuries often suffer from a concussion caused by the enormous pressure wave that travels through their brain. The resulting symptoms vary from being knocked unconscious, to ruptured eardrums, dizziness, amnesia, ringing in the ears, and debilitating migraines. For many victims, the worst is often the unbearable level of pain that keeps them awake.

Acupuncture is well known for its powerful effect on the nervous system. While there is still much debate on how it actually works, one of the leading theories is that it affects the neural pathways to the brain. To use the analogy of the nervous system and a telephone exchange, our brain is constantly receiving hundreds of messages from diverse parts of the body; some are voluntary like an order to move the leg, or flex the fingers, or involuntary like a signal that the bladder is full and needs emptying in the near future.

In the case of pain, the message travels from the receptors at the site of the injury to the brain through the spinal cord located inside the vertebrae of the back. The milder forms of painkillers, like paracetamol or aspirin, act by blocking the transmission of these signals at the site of the injury, while the most powerful from the opiate category that includes morphine, have a stronger action through the neural pathway of the spinal cord. It is thought that acupuncture affects the way these pain signals are transmitted.

Anatomically, the most powerful acupuncture points are located in close proximity to an abundance of nerve receptors, usually on the hands and feet. What is so interesting about Dr Niemtzow's technique is that instead of inserting acupuncture needles into the limbs, as one would expect, he achieves powerful results by stimulating points in the ear of his patients.

Auricular acupuncture was originally introduced by Dr Nogier in the early 1950s. This unusual concept originated when the French doctor discovered recent scars on the ear of one of his patients who had been successfully treated for sciatic pain in his lower back and legs.

Our very observant physician developed a map of the ear based on the inverted foetus concept used in reflexology. According to this theory, the area corresponding to the head is located in the earlobe. The zone associated with the spine and back is along the posterior ridge of the ear, and the feet and hands are positioned along the anterior and posterior area of the apex. When treating a patient suffering from acute headaches, for example, needles will be inserted in the earlobe, which is the zone corresponding to the head.

For pain reduction, Dr Niemtzow selects five points on the outer ear, according to the location of the symptoms. The auricular points are stimulated for three to four days. In most cases, very short acupuncture needles are used, or even small pellets or seeds applied with tape and pressed to continually stimulate the points. They can be worn comfortably under the soldier's helmet during the day without discomfort.

This technique delivers significant pain relief in just a few minutes, while the pain free period varies from minutes to weeks and months, according to the pathology and the length of stimulation.

The use of acupuncture, instead of narcotics, has the advantage of avoiding the side effects associated with painkillers. It also gives the doctors a better assessment of the degree and severity of the brain injury than is possible with drugs that numb the area and mask the symptoms.

While the selection of this original acupuncture technique for the treatment of battle injuries is not a miracle cure, it offers a powerful alternative to conventional therapies.

Also, for the acupuncturists among us, its introduction into army medical training is powerful evidence of how much acceptance this traditional medical system is gradually gaining in the Western world. That's cause indeed for celebration.

Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney