An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Battlefield acupuncture fights pain, skepticism

  • Published
  • By Brian Shreve
  • Robins Public Affairs
When it comes to pain relief, sharp objects aren't often the remedy most consider first. But with the realized benefits of battlefield acupuncture, that perception is quickly changing, one pin prick at a time.

Physicians and other health care providers from the 78th Medical Group attended a training session March 1 at the Robins Medical Center as part of an effort to get personnel acquainted with, and ultimately credentialed on, the practice -- which could soon become an alleviating addition to the base clinic.

Dr. Tom Piazza, one of three physician acupuncturists at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., led the day-long course in which students received hands-on instruction by performing the procedure on each other, as well as other volunteers seeking reprieve from persistent pain.

The story of how acupuncture found a home in the Air Force began at Andrews where Piazza's colleague, Dr. Richard Niemtzow, created battlefield acupuncture while on active duty in 2001, and he has since carried the lesson of its benefits to doctors around the world.

Master Sgt. Michael Dougherty, 78th Medical Group independent duty medical technician, had been in contact with Niemtzow for the past three years on a mission to bring battlefield acupuncture to Robins.

Though still in the planning stages, Dougherty said interest is already high among medical staff and others. Last week's class represented another milestone in that effort.

"We're still working out the details," he said. "I see somewhere inside four weeks that we really start getting some traction on this. I think once this gets out, the demand is going to outstrip the supply of providers."

The ultimate vision is that the clinic will soon have the ability to devote half a day each week for battlefield acupuncture.

Battlefield acupuncture, widely considered pain-free, is an oracular therapy specific to the surface of the ear and consists of five small needles that remain in place for two to four days before they are removed or fall out on their own. Though performed in minutes, results of the procedure are often felt within seconds.

Piazza pointed out how important these distinct locations in the ear are in relation to pain affecting various regions of the body.

"We're not training people to be acupuncturists; we're training them for this one particular technique," said Piazza. "And, we've found that about 80 to 86 percent of patients respond, and some of those are truly dramatic responses."

Dougherty's advocacy for the non-traditional therapy rests largely on his view that any alternative to medication is worth the Air Force's time. Formerly assigned to special operations, Dougherty was embedded in work where potentially mind-numbing narcotics and critical duties couldn't mix.

"Some can no longer control or fly because of those medications," he said. "So we looked for ways we could treat their pain without taking them off status, and acupuncture was one. If it works and this lets an Airman take even one fewer pill a day, that's a victory for us."

Though utilized for thousands of years, any brand of acupuncture -- still viewed by some as too unconventional or medically unsubstantiated -- has more than its share of doubters, some of whom changed their minds during last Saturday's session.

Staff Sgt. Tabitha Loomis, 78th Medical Group medical technician, had been suffering chronic pain due to a dislocated collarbone.

"This was my first time, and I was completely skeptical," said Loomis, who volunteered for battlefield acupuncture at the event. "And, I haven't been this pain-free without medication in years. I'm a believer."