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U.S. Military Incorporates Classic Chinese Medicine

by Sgt. Brandon C. Pomrenke, Combined Joint Special Operations

BALAD, Iraq - Acupuncture, an ancient medical art dating back to 2500 B.C., is beginning to work its way into modern military medicine.

Air Force Maj. Kirsten Vitrikas, a deputy surgeon now assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, has recently started using acupuncture to treat a variety of pain and illnesses within the military community.

According to Chinese theory, pain and some illnesses are caused by the blocking of a person's energy. Acupuncture is used to move that energy past the block and alleviate the problem.

Modern medical explanation states that inserting the needles into the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system into releasing chemicals in the body. When released, those chemicals can affect how one experiences pain or discomfort.

“The needles have a charge because they are metal and can help push through the block,” explained Vitrikas. “Sometimes we can use small amounts of electricity that can help alleviate the pain, too.”

However, there are some skeptics in the medical community. Doctors have tried to find concrete results that show whether or not acupuncture works.

“Many people have difficulty understanding acupuncture,” Vitrikas said. “They may be skeptical simply because they don't understand how it works.”

Although it may not work for everyone, results have been seen from her sessions.

“A few people that have been in don't respond to the treatments, but most respond at least a little bit,” she said. “The treatment is very personalized to the patient, so it can be hard to replicate in another case because it affects each person differently.”

Others have difficulty believing in acupuncture because the basic concepts can be used for so many different circumstances.

According to an article in “American Academy of Medical Acupuncture,” acupuncture is useful for a wide variety of medical problems such as: digestive, respiratory, neurological, muscular, urinary, menstrual and reproductive disorders. They can even help with tension and stress relief. It has even been used in conjunction with heat and aromatherapy to help with a breech-birth.

“It can even help you sleep better or just give you more energy,” she said.

When it comes to dealing with the treatment of pain, she has seen many patients setting appointments.

“Here, acupuncture is used primarily for pain, but it can be used for a lot of different things,” said Vitrikas. “Lower back and neck pain are pretty common though.”

Another benefit to acupuncture is the minimal side effects. Because a patient is not using prescription or over-the-counter medication, the risk of unintended ailments is low.

“Acupuncture saves people from the side effects of pain medications,” she explained. “Many pain relievers can cause things as serious as ulcers or kidney problems. We see some dizziness or bruising, but those are the most common.”

Aside from the low risk of side effects, acupuncture also offers a monetary benefit to the military community.

“Medications are expensive,” said Vitrikas. “It costs about $11 for a box of 100 needles here. The standard back treatment with acupuncture uses around 12 needles.”

Purchasing the electronic stimulator at $500 is more expensive, but after several treatments it makes it worth it, she said.

After all is said and done, acupuncture is not just gaining popularity world-wide, but here in the military community, as well.

“More and more people are coming in,” explained Vitrikas. “Word of mouth is really helping here.”

Pfc. Jason Anderson, also assigned to CJSOTF-AP, had surgery on his foot before deployment. Even after surgery, he continued to experience pain and decided to try acupuncture.

“The small amount of pain that I went through was worth the relief,” he said. “I have always been curious yet skeptical about it, but now I am a believer...it really worked.”

Vitrikas remembers one of her patients at Scott Air Force Base who had many foot surgeries.

According to her, the patient's feet began to contract from the layers of scar tissue that had developed. With injections and acupuncture, the pain began to subside and her feet even began to regain their flatness.

“I'm a big fan,” Vitrikas said. “It's a little magical to see something like that and you didn't even touch the painful spot.”

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