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Concern over painkiller addiction rates among US military personnel and veterans has led to interest in a technique known as battlefield acupuncture.
Thousands of servicemen and women who survived the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have since become casualties of an opioid abuse epidemic that has claimed an estimated 165,000 lives between 1999 and 2014.
As opioid prescription rates soared between 2004 and 2012, veterans received a disproportionate amount of the drugs for pain management.
One in five former personnel who served after the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been prescribed an opioid, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental drug overdose as the rest of the population. Now military doctors and physicians are hoping that a cluster of tiny gold-plated needles and a simple treatment programme can help many of their patients live relatively pain-free without risk of addiction.
Battlefield acupuncture (BFA) was developed in 2001 by Richard Niemtzow, a retired US air force medical colonel, as a quick-working alternative to traditional pain relief and is becoming more widespread across the military.
Practitioners place the roughly 2mm long needles in sequence into five points in each ear and leave them in place until they fall out several days later. Unlike traditional acupuncture, which first originated in China about 8,000 years ago and requires years of study, military medics can be trained in BFA in a few hours.
Another benefit is that patients can continue to participate in work and life as they are unimpaired by drowsiness or other side effects.
Military pilots, for instance, can still fly, said Lynda Vu, an air force colonel who recently administered BFA on deployment in Qatar. “This allows personnel to go back to the fight with minimal impact to continuing missions,” she told the Military Times, an independent news organisation covering the US armed forces.
As with other forms of acupuncture the practice is, however, dogged by scepticism among some scientists over its medical benefits.
Harriet Hall, another retired US air force colonel who is also a surgeon and family physician, wrote that battlefield acupuncture techniques and other examples of “pseudoscience in the military” were “wasting money, perpetuating myths, and putting our troops in danger”.