The quiet sounds of a Native American flute, accompanied by flowing water and chirping birds, sings through the dimly lit space. There is a massage table set to one side and a handful of earth brown chairs and tables along the perimeter of the room. A small open space in the center welcomes patients who are lining up at the door, many in wheelchairs and walking with assistive devices. They are here seeking relief from their pain.
“It sets the stage for a calm, healing environment,” said Dr. Juli Olson, chiropractor and acupuncturist from VA Central Iowa Health Care System. “The environment in which the care is delivered is very important. It’s a chance for the body to focus on healing itself.” Olson is one of a four-person team from VA bringing acupuncture to Veterans participating in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. It is the first time a daily acupuncture clinic has been offered at the event.
Navy Veteran Juan Sandoval was paralyzed in an auto accident in 2001 and suffers from nerve pain in his back and elbow. He had no previous experience with acupuncture, but today he is returning to the clinic for a second time in as many days after the first treatment relieved the pain in his elbow.
“I had to try it out. Guess what? I’m glad I did,” Sandoval said. “I’m able to push my chair. I’ve got flexibility back. The pain is so low and it’s still going down.”
Sandoval’s dramatic results are not uncommon said Dr. Dan Federman, a primary care physician and the associate chief of medicine at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven. “We found that around 85 percent of people have an immediate decrease in pain score.”
Federman is also a professor of medicine at Yale University’s medical school. He is leading VA research on the benefits and effectiveness of battlefield acupuncture – a subset of ear acupuncture that is easily performed with only five paper-thin needles inserted into specific points around each ear.
Air Force Veteran Ronnie Leeth had been experiencing back pain and was treated by Federman. Leeth said he felt the benefits firsthand. “It was like I had to remind myself I had the pain. It was gone.”
Along with pain relief many patients experience emotional improvement.
“It’s super cool to see, in some patients, there are some immediate results,” Olson said. “You can see their anxiety drop.”
Sandoval said he became a true believer of the treatment when his mood improved.
“My stress went away. (The pain) is one less thing I have to worry about,” he said. “That sold me right there.”
Army Veteran Jeff Daniels, who came to the clinic with Leeth, said he had received acupuncture before and was excited to hear VA was offering treatment at the Winter Sports Clinic. He also came seeking pain relief, but his goal was clear – he wants to be able to stop taking pain medications.
“It’s a relief,” Daniels said. “In a couple of days if I feel I won’t need to take my medication, that’s the telltale for me.”
Sandoval also is hoping to reduce his reliance on pain medications.
“I want to get off the pills. And see others get off the opiates,” he said. “I need something new that is going to take the pain away.”
In May 2017, VA’s undersecretary for health approved a policy establishing the provision of complementary and integrative health, previously referred to as alternative medicine. The policy outlines the types of therapies available to Veterans, including acupuncture.
“Acupuncture in particular has gained a great deal of traction within the VA system, and is in great demand as part of the response to the opioid epidemic and to the need for effective pain treatment,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Kligler, director of VA’s Integrative Health Coordinating Center in Medical Acupuncture, the official journal of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.
Janet Durfee is a nurse consultant at VA’s Office of Patient Care Services, and serves on the center’s advisory work group, a group of subject matter experts and program office leadership.
In Septermber 2017, Durfee helped bring acupuncture treatment to the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic for the first time. She said the feedback from Veterans was extremely positive.
“We had some lessons learned and what encouraged us is one third of participants came through the acupuncture (clinic) and Veterans requested to have acupuncture at the Winter Sports Clinic,” she said.
Perhaps the most significant advancement at VA regarding acupuncture came in February 2018 when the department updated the handbook covering professional qualification standards and recognized acupuncturists as a standalone occupational series. Previously, only clinical staff trained in acupuncture as an ancillary skillset were allowed to perform the treatment. Now, VA facilities can hire individuals whose sole training and certification is as an acupuncturist.
“One big thing is the new professional standards and the hiring of acupuncturists,” said Alison Whitehead, the center’s national program manager. “Acupuncture has been added to the Veterans benefits package, along with yoga, massage, tai chi, clinical hypnosis, biofeedback and others. Veterans can access these therapies on site, via telehealth and sometimes in the community, if it’s part of their treatment plan.”
“I’m sure going to talk to my provider,” Sandoval said. “I think all the VA’s should have it.”
Veterans interested in receiving acupuncture or other complementary and integrative health therapies, should speak with their primary care provider.
About the National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic
Co-hosted by DAV and VA, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic promotes sports therapy and rehabilitation through adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing, rock climbing, wheelchair self-defense, sled hockey, scuba diving and other adaptive sports and activities. The five-day event in Snowmass, Colorado is a world leader in adaptive winter sports instruction for ill and injured Veterans and their families. Be inspired at wintersportsclinic.org