Military field physicians are using the practice of acupuncture to treat cases of mild traumatic brain injuries (mild TBI), including concussions, and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"We think it's important to work on these as a team and address both issues at the same time to try to get a Marine back on his feet and heading in the right direction," said Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Charlies Benson, a psychiatrist and surgeon with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Acupuncture, a form of alternative medicine, treats patients by the insertion and manipulation of needles in the body. It has been known to relieve pain, treat infertility and diseases, and prevent diseases.
Operation Stress Control and Readiness Program, a joint Navy-Marine Corps effort, embeds psychiatrists and psychologists within combat teams to provide mental health care to troops in Afghanistan. The program trains medical officers, corpsmen, chaplains, religious personnel and key leaders at the sergeant and first sergeant level to deliver basic mental health services. Troops also have the option to see physical therapists, occupational therapists, and acupuncturists at an outpatient concussion center to address physical and emotional impacts of combat-related injuries.
Having psychiatrists and psychologists embedded in regiments and battalions gives troops who might not naturally turn to a mental health provider a range of ways to seek help, Benson said.
Mild TBI is an especially challenging injury to treat, Bensen said, adding that it is a physical injury, which often includes psychological symptoms including insomnia, headaches, nightmares and anxiety.
"When folks have a mild traumatic brain injury, sometimes their symptoms have a psychiatric flavor," Bensen said. "They might have difficulty sleeping or nightmares and anxiety along with that."
As it turns out, PTSD symptoms are very similar to those of mild TBI - insomnia, headaches, memory problems, attention problems, anxiety and irritability. Studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment for PTSD, leading Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Keith Stuessi, former director of the Concussion Restoration Care Center at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan to believe the treatment could be used for mild TBI as well.
Stuessi describes the Concussion Restoration Care Center as a success - treating more than 320 concussion patients thus far. Of the more than 20 troops he personally treated, almost all saw marked improvements in their sleep, anxiety levels and frequency of headaches. Cmdr. Earl Frantz, who replaced Steussi at Camp Leatherneck in March, continued the practice of using acupuncture on troops with symptoms of mild TBI.
The Department of Defense is putting its weight behind acupuncture. For example, the most recent Veterans Affairs (VA) clinical guidance recommends acupuncture as a supplementary therapy for PTSD, anxiety, pain and sleeplessness. The VA is even recruiting candidates for a formal study of acupuncture's effectiveness on PTSD and mild TBI.
For more information about acupuncture and its use to treat mild TBI and PTSD, watch the following videos of Cmdr. Steussi, and a piece by American Forces Network Afghanistan.
Watch this account of how acupuncture is benefiting service members during deployment: HERE