acupuncture for PTSD in veterans_fullBy Sara Calabro

Acupuncture is an ideal remedy for what a recent CNN article calls a “cookie-cutter” approach to addressing the hidden wounds experienced by many veterans and active military personnel.

The military, in light of the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been criticized for its handling of non-physical war injuries.

Reportedly, physically wounded soldiers are offered expedient medical care that includes thorough rehabilitation, while those with less visible symptoms—depression, memory loss, panic attacks, and poor concentration, among others—are often left in the lurch.

Acupuncture, because it excels at addressing these more ambiguous, multi-faceted conditions, has a rightful place in the treatment of PTSD in veterans.

Why acupuncture makes sense for PTSD

The complex nature of PTSD and some TBI symptoms make them commonly resistant to standard-issue medications. One-size-fits-all treatments are inappropriate.

When treating PTSD and related conditions, acupuncturists consider each person’s constitutional makeup and coexisting conditions.

A simplistic example based on TCM-style acupuncture includes the following: A veteran experiencing depression and chronic temporal headaches (common PTSD symptoms) would be treated for a Liver imbalance, while a vet with anxiety and insomnia (also common in people with PTSD) is more likely to receive a Heart-focused treatment. 

Real-life treatments vary based on the acupuncturist’s style and clinical experience, but a defining quality of acupuncture is its attention to each patient’s unique profile.

In addition to being individualistic, acupuncture is characteristically assisting rather than intervening. By calming the sympathetic nervous system, acupuncture gently encourages the body to do what it is naturally meant to do, opposed to abruptly suppressing symptoms.

Trauma-induced symptoms do not go away over night, nor do they warrant a quick fix. PTSD from war requires ongoing support. Acupuncture, in conjunction with other modalities such as psychotherapy and social work, is highly effective because it works with each person at whatever stage he’s at.

Military response to acupuncture

It’s tough to get the real story on the military’s openness to acupuncture.

Earlier this year, NPR ran a two-part investigative report that exposed the military’s deficiencies in offering effective follow-up care to soldiers with TBI-related symptoms, many of which overlap with PTSD’s.

Less than two weeks after the NPR stories appeared, Austin-American Statesman ran a lengthy article touting the extensive military effort to use acupuncture and other non-biomedical modalities to address post-combat mental health issues.

The NPR and Statesman articles both focused on the same military base—Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas—which calls into question the rosy picture painted by the latter. Still, the military has shown some signs of openness to acupuncture.

Back in 2008, the Air Force began using battlefield acupuncture, a five-point ear protocol for emergency pain-relief in combat. More recently, that program was expanded to military bases, to help alleviate chronic pain that afflicts many veterans and active soldiers. And just last month, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded a $1.2 million grant to New England School of Acupuncture to study the effects of acupuncture on Gulf War Illness.

The military is not unique in its tendency to prioritize physical over mental health. Seeing is believing in biomedicine’s increasingly tech-driven approach to administering and paying for healthcare.

However, heightened attention to TBI since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed the military’s handling of mental health in the limelight. This creates an opportunity.

Already, there are many community acupuncture clinics and some nonprofits around the country that specialize in treating veterans. On the whole, these clinics are drastically underutilized considering the benefit they provide.

By endorsing acupuncture through its health programs, the military—an institution that holds sway within biomedicine—helps influence mainstream perception and understanding of acupuncture. In turn, more veterans, active soldiers, and military families will be told by their healthcare practitioners about acupuncture’s availability and usefulness for PTSD and related conditions.

Increased awareness of acupuncture for PTSD would not only bring relief to thousands of military members but also provide a model through which other sectors can give mental health the attention it deserves.

Photo by Sara Calabro

Like this article?

There’s more where it came from. Get AcuTake delivered to your inbox.