Battlefield acupuncture reduces opioid use for civilians too

Published: Jan. 18, 2019 at 4:31 PM EST
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A treatment used on the battlefield is now helping combat the opioid epidemic in civilians.

More than one in five people in the U.S. who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. Now, a treatment that was previously only used in the military is going mainstream and is offering a non-opioid alternative to help with chronic pain.

Elizabeth Cappadona dealt with chronic hip pain for a good majority of her life.

“I had the hip pain since I was probably about 10 after a surgery I had, and it started getting worse in my 30s,” she said.

With her job as a triage nurse, she didn’t want to let her pain slow her down. So, when nurse practitioner Heather Jackson offered Elizabeth a solution, she jumped at the opportunity to try battlefield acupuncture. Originally, it started as a way to help those in the military deal with pain quickly.

“To give a treatment for pilots and for our service men and women that obviously doing very high-tech jobs that could not have the side effects of opioids or have sedation,” Jackson said.

So, they did a version of acupuncture that was limited to just the ear.

“The theory in acupuncture is that you can essentially treat any portion of the body through the ear,” Jackson said.

In a room filled with soothing music and aromatherapy, Jackson said the patients prop "their feet up to whatever is comfortable, and then I just have them relax. And then I put needles in their ear.”

The needles help the body release chemicals that reduce the feeling of pain. The idea of needles may make anyone cringe, but Jackson said she has "a lot of patients get really great benefits from it and say that they haven’t had to have that extra pain pill.”

For Elizabeth, the treatment has done wonders for her hip.

“The first day after my treatment, I got out of bed and I didn’t feel that hip pain when I stood up, and it’s been wonderful,” she said.

Each session lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes. The treatment is not covered by insurance, but Vanderbilt University Medical Center does offer the treatment for $20 per session.

Jackson does say that the battlefield acupuncture is to be used in addition to other therapies.



REPORT: MB #4523

BACKGROUND: Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts anywhere between three and six months. A series of messages is sent through the nervous system in the form of an electrical signal until it reaches the brain, and lets the body know that it is in pain. These signals usually stop after the wound heals, but if it does not then there is a chance it could be chronic pain. Some of the causes of chronic pain include arthritis, nerve damage, infections or past injuries or surgeries. If you do have chronic pain, then the pain could feel like stinging, shooting, throbbing or a dull ache. Other symptoms include weakness, mood changes or trouble sleeping.


TREATMENTS: There are different treatments that you can use to try to deal with the pain. Top solutions are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen, antidepressants, anticonvulsant medications, muscle relaxants and opioids. For antidepressants, the dosage is much lower than if someone had depression, but they are daily medications. The side effects are types of glaucoma or dry mouth. Another fear patients have is getting addicted to opioids. Nondrug treatments include massages, exercise (such as stretching, walking or swimming) and even acupuncture.

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NEW RESEARCH: It has been discovered that battlefield acupuncture cannot only be used to reduce pain, but it also can help those with chronic pain as well. This method was developed for soldiers, in order to keep the pain away so they could get back on the field and finish their missions. The process asks for the doctor to put the needles in five specific areas inside one or both of the ears. The procedure has immediate results. The treatment releases a particular set of endorphins that give short term analgesia for long term effect. The needles stay in place after the appointment, and they fall out after three to four days. Heather Jackson, chronic pain specialist, says that the procedure can be done once anywhere between two to four weeks or even once every three months. The procedure is possible for patients with bleeding disorders, and it is a very affordable and accessible process, and a better option than the other medications.