NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — The Mike O’Callaghan Federal Medical Center is where Western and Eastern medicines meet to bring the best medical care to the Nellis community. One of the alternative treatments offered at O’Callaghan is the ancient practice of acupuncture.
The acupuncture clinic is located in family medicine residency, across from family medicine at the hospital, and Lt. Col. (Dr.) Paul Crawford, 99th Medical Group associate residency director, is a board certified family physician trained in medical acupuncture.
His own pain led him to believe in acupuncture as a viable treatment method.
“I had some sprains that were treated with acupuncture, and it worked. I was a skeptic before that,” he said.
The clinic mostly serves active-duty service members; however, it will treat retirees and family members on a case-by-case basis. Crawford says Nellis’ physicians have been very open to referring their patients to this treatment.
“We get plenty of referrals, and they don’t all come from the same doctors,” he said.
Crawford also added that physicians are open to using integrative medicine techniques like acupuncture along with other treatment.
Most patients that use acupuncture are seeking relief from common ailments including headaches and migraines, allergies, back and hip pain, as well as ankle and foot pain. It also works to treat symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries, such as anxiety and depression. Currently, the Nellis clinic is the only place a patient can be referred to receive acupuncture because it is not covered by TRICARE as a benefit.
The military has recognized the quick pain relief benefits of acupuncture, with many doctors now practicing Battlefield Acupuncture during deployments and at home.
This technique was developed by Air Force Col. (Dr.) Richard Niemtzow to help military members receive pain relief without medication and return them to duty status sooner without many side effects. He found that inserting small stud-like needles into any of five specific points on the ear allowed for quick pain relief. These studs are able to stay in for days until they fall out naturally.
“We do have a lot of doctors that are trained in [Battlefield Acupuncture], and they just do it in the midst of their clinic,” Crawford said. “That can be really effective, particularly for acute pain like if you have a headache or you sprained your ankle.”
Within the medical field, there has been a lot of discussion about the medical validity of acupuncture; however, those who find relief cannot dismiss its results. Crawford said for 80 percent of patients acupuncture helps, however, with pain, there is no real predictive way to tell what’s going to work.
“The good news is for us American-trained individuals, there is a lot of neuroscience that has been developed around why acupuncture works,” Crawford said.
One of those discoveries is how pain is felt in the body.
“We also know pain signals do not only travel in nerves; they also travel in the channels between muscles. The places that we put those needles are those channels between muscles,” he added.
The diameter of the needles themselves is about 1/10 of an IV needle, comparable to the thickness of a guitar string, according to Crawford.
“Once you get through the skin you don’t really feel it. Most people, when we get in the right spot, will describe heaviness in that area. That’s called the sensation of getting qi. Both the acupuncturist and the patient know when that happens. I feel your body grab the needle in a different texture as I’m inserting the needle so I know that’s where I need to stop,” the doctor said.
For those wishing to try acupuncture to help with pain management, make an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss a referral for this treatment.