No matter what treatment she tried, chronic pain troubled Sierra Praiswater — until a 5,000 year old technique finally brought her relief.
The 19-year-old hospital apprentice in the Navy suffered from chronic back pain, whether she was sitting, standing or laying down. But after receiving a total of 10 acupuncture needles in her ears, she is nearly pain free and immediately saw an increase in her range of motion and flexibility.
“I feel really good right now because the sharp pain is gone,” said Praiswater, a general duty corpsman in the labor and delivery department of the hospital. “I feel a definite improvement. It’s not as uncomfortable. The worst area of pain was the middle of my back, but now that has completely subsided.”
Praiswater was among dozens of patients who lined up Tuesday at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in the Pain Management Clinic. Medical providers from across all branches of the military honed their newly-learned acupuncture techniques. The service member's new acupuncture skills were immediately available to patients upon the completion of training.
Acupuncture, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a technique involving the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin at strategic points in order to minimize pain. Medical providers at the Naval Hospital can suggest acupuncture for pain management but patients also have the opportunity to request the procedure.
The Samueli Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit organization that researches and advocates for the integration of acupuncture and other complimentary procedures into modern medicine has worked with the Air Force Acupuncture Center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for 10 years. On Tuesday their team of clinicians and researchers introduced their Battlefield Acupuncture Program, a program that can be used in a clinical or field setting to alleviate acute or chronic pain.
Not knowing what to expect, Praiswater said the corpsman who did her acupuncture took the time to explain the procedure and what she should expect. Following the procedure, discharge instructions were given which include limiting exercise, refraining from large meals and not operating motor vehicles or machinery because the symptoms of becoming lightheaded and feeling euphoric can be dangerous during those activities.
“My back gradually got better as I sat there or moved around a bit,” Praiswater said. “Each time they stuck the needle in, it became easier and easier to sit there. The pain gradually went away as they did the procedure. I would recommend the procedure because it’s a good addition on top of physical therapy. If you’re serious about getting better faster, I think this is a good option for patients.”
As the medical provider rendering the acupuncture to patients, Petty Officer First Class Heather Eisenhardt, 31, of Sneads Ferry said that performing the actual procedure is “fairly simple” and doesn’t take too long to master. The great thing about the Battlefield Acupuncture Program, she said, is that it can be used at the smallest battalion aid station, at a hospital or anywhere in between because it is very practical and takes very little time to do. Today, Eisenhardt alongside her colleagues spent four hours learning about the acupuncture and then practiced on oranges before performing the procedures on actual patients, all of which was done under the supervision of the Samueli Institute staff.
“Acupuncture is not a medication and it doesn’t influence your ability to walk, function or really carry on with your daily life,” Eisenhardt said. “Everyone I have witnessed today has seen some level of relief from it and it didn’t involve any medicine. It’s not like physical therapy where it takes time, the effects are pretty immediate.”
With other types of medical intervention, it may take significant time for patients to find relief from their symptoms, she said, but with acupuncture, the medical provider can see the relief on a patient's face when the pain begins to subside, something the Eisenhardt said is “truly awesome” because she is helping a patient live with less pain almost immediately.
“Pain affects so many aspects of a patient's life,” Eisenhardt said. “Being able to do an intervention where they feel relief and aren’t on restrictive medications and can go back to their daily routine is really great. Having the hospital be on board with treatments like this just gives me another tool to better care for my patients which is always a good thing.”
Joan Walter, the Chief Operating Officer at the Samueli Institute has been intertwined with the military working as a physician’s assistant as well as a lawyer for 21 years. The reason for the institute’s visit, according to Walter, is because Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, has been using the Battlefield Acupuncture Program for years and it has proven effective and safe for a variety of chronic and acute pain conditions. By implementing the training program at the Naval Hospital, the institute hopes to broaden the use of acupuncture in Naval Medicine.
“A program like this that trains service members at different levels across medicine created a robust way to practice this technique especially in a deployed setting,” Walter said. “Like any other treatment it is important that the provider of care knows what the source of pain is when someone presents for the first time. There is a clinical responsibility to look into symptoms first.”
She has observed, over the last 10 years, the reaction a medical provider has when a patient tells them the pain has either lessened or completely subsided because it validates the provider’s efforts. By augmenting acupuncture into a patient’s treatment regiment, Walter said that the use of pain medications can lessen, providing additional benefits to patients.
“Sometimes patients cannot participate in physical therapy because of the level of pain they are in,” Walter said. “By augmenting the use of acupuncture, pain can be lessened and the patient can participate in treatment, furthering their healing which is always a great thing. There are many ways we can explore integrating acupuncture into care plans.”
As the director of the Air Force Acupuncture Center, Richard C. Niemtzow, a retired Air Force colonel said that he developed the program in order to create a faster and more efficient way to deal with pain in the military. With acupuncture, traditional methods could not be used on the battlefield, but with the Battlefield Acupuncture program, troops are able to return to full duty at a much more rapid rate, he said.
“For the average person seeking medical care, acupuncture is slowly integrating into mainstream medicine and it should be prescribed when a patient is not responding well to Western medicine,” Niemtzow said. “Western medicine is outstanding and serves many useful purposes in helping our service members. ...Acupuncture may be successfully integrated into Western medicine where it can be used primarily or adjunctively to assist the patient. It’s just one more tool we can use.”