By Michael Turk
Battlefield acupuncture is proving to have positive results for wounded warriors. This is the story of two medical doctors who introduced a radically foreign (Chinese) treatment into a strictly conservative organization—an organization that values practical results over theory.
In 1995, Colonel Richard Niemtzow began using acupuncture on armed forces personnel to reduce pain; later he became the navy’s first full-time medical acupuncturist. He developed a method of pain-relieving acupuncture that could be used on active duty personnel so they could stay alert, rather than use pain pills, which can cause lethargy and reduce alertness.
The fact that acupuncture has proven to relieve pain effectively without side effects motivates its widespread use within the military. Critics of battlefield acupuncture point to a lack of scientific evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture. The military is not concerned that scientists are still debating why acupuncture reduces pain. The fact that acupuncture reduces pain in 80 percent to 90 percent of cases is enough cause for the U.S. Armed Forces. The quality of life for American soldiers suffering from pain also motivates acupuncture use for servicemen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Niemtzow is called the father of battlefield acupuncture; however, he is not the first military surgeon to use acupuncture. Napoleon’s surgeon general, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), wrote many books on battlefield medicine. His innovative approach employed rapid removal of injured soldiers from the front to battlefield hospitals for life-saving surgeries and emergency medical treatment. Larrey also wrote in his campaign journals about his use of acupuncture and moxibustion on military personnel. He preferred moxibustion for treating chronic pain.
Since antiquity, acupoints have been stimulated with heat as well as with needles. Today moxibustion is largely forgotten. However, ancient masters taught that moxibustion alone relieves chronic pain better than acupuncture.
As a young surgeon, Baron Larrey first realized that something needed to be done for the many seriously injured combatants when he participated in the storming of the Bastille. As a surgeon on campaign in the army of Napoleon (1769-1821), Larrey saw the advantages of bringing medical care right to the battlefront.
Napoleon’s tactics employed a method of fast attack that used horse-drawn artillery. Larrey saw the advantage of light horse-drawn carriages to remove the wounded from the field of battle. He called them “flying ambulances.” He further developed the stretcher and the battlefield hospital to remove wounded warriors quickly from the battle zone into treatment and therapy. Before that, ambulances had been stationed more than two miles from the front, where they waited for the fighting to end and then carried the wounded to the nearest hospital in a city that could be at a great distance.
The implementation of these innovations saved the lives of the soldiers and boosted their morale, knowing they would be rescued and attended by a medical corps. These medical military units are still used in wartime today. Colonel Niemtzow is the father of battlefield acupuncture, but Surgeon General Larrey, the father of battlefield medicine, used acupuncture and moxibustion 200 years earlier.