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Army veteran: Battlefield acupuncture has him “on cloud nine”

Battlefield acupuncture procedure. Photo credit: VA News

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Army veteran Joe Knight, from West Haven, Connecticut, had started drinking again when he was unable to obtain opiate pain medications to manage his pain. Battlefield acupuncture (BFA) offered relief for the pain and a new opportunity to enjoy life.

At 50, Knight has experienced joint pain typical of someone much older. For many years, he suffered from debilitating pain due to wrist and shoulder injuries and surgeries. "I was drinking two fifths of vodka a day to numb the pain, probably for 60 days straight. I had been off alcohol for 10 years," he said.

He had developed diabetes and weighed 357 pounds. His drinking also led to a divorce. "My hope was exhausted," he added.

A patient at Connecticut VA, Knight was introduced to BFA, a form of auricular (ear) acupuncture, by Dr. Daniel Federman, chief of medicine. At his first appointment, he was honest about his pain and what he was doing to get relief. Federman recommended BFA. Knight wasn't sure it would work but was willing to try anything.


Knight felt immediate relief. "I was on cloud nine. On Sunday, I realized I hadn't needed anything, not even Tylenol or ibuprofen for pain," he said. He began looking forward to his BFA sessions, knowing he would have pain relief for the weekend and any pain that returned between sessions would be temporary. The sessions were conducted in a group setting with other veterans and Knight also enjoyed the camaraderie.

"Now everything has changed," Knight said. He was able to improve his diet, began exercising, and lost 123 pounds. He enjoys gardening and woodworking, and provides care for a loved one, all with less pain.

As part of a Whole Health approach to care, many veterans are finding pain relief through BFA. According to Dr. Juli Olson, BFA involves placing five to 10 tiny needles around the ear, the theory being that the entire body and all its functions are represented at various points on the ear.


Olson is a chiropractor and acupuncturist with Central Iowa VA and VA's national lead for acupuncture.

"In traditional acupuncture, whenever you place a needle into the body, it has effects on the tissue right there, plus it has distant effects throughout the nervous system. With battlefield acupuncture, we're not having any local effect because the pain for most people is not in the ear. We're taking advantage of those distant effects," she said.

There may be mild discomfort at the outset, but Olson said that on average, BFA reduces pain levels by two points on the pain scale and sometimes more.

According to Federman, BFA can provide enough pain relief to avoid or reduce the need for prescription medications which can be addictive. For pain, "I start with traditional topical therapy, physical therapy, Tylenol, maybe nonsteroidals. If that doesn't help, then I often recommend battlefield acupuncture," she added.


Federman was once skeptical about complementary and integrative health (CIH) therapies such as BFA. That changed after his own experience with a "comfort dog." He is a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, where the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of 26 people including 20 children. He knew families who lost children and seeing their pain was difficult and contributed to his own despair.

"I'd always been an evidence-based kind of guy," Federman noted. "But at a vigil, I talked to this woman who brought her healing dog. I petted the dog not expecting anything. Something happened to me I can't really articulate. This feeling washed over me. I really felt healed. Then I thought, ‘Maybe we don't have to live by evidence-based medicine alone.'"

That experience prompted Federman to start exploring CIH treatments for his patients. He conducted his own study on BFA and its use for veterans, which found that 82% of participants felt pain relief.

According to Olson, with the relief of pain offered by BFA and other modalities, a person can begin focusing on other aspects of health that are important. "We find that BFA can be a catalyst to improving well-being overall," she said.

Learn more about Whole Health and CIH treatments here,

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