CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — The U.S. military is applying an ancient Chinese healing technique to the top modern battlefield injury for American soldiers, with results that doctors here say are "off the charts."
"Battlefield acupuncture," developed by Air Force physician Col. Richard Niemtzow, is helping heal soldiers with concussions so they can return more quickly to the front lines.
At Camp Leatherneck, an enormous Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, a military doctor's consulting room has dim little Christmas lights arranged across the ceiling and new age music playing.
Commander Keith Stuessi asks his patients to relax in his darkened chamber and then gently inserts hair-thin needles into special points on their body: between the eyebrows, in the ear lobe, on the top of the head, into the webbed part of the hand between the thumb and fingers, and on top of the feet between the first and second metatarsal. The needles may look gruesome but don't hurt.
Stuessi, a naval doctor whose rank is equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel, treats concussions, also known as mild brain trauma.
"I'm seeing pretty incredible results," said Stuessi, who's based at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, and is originally from Wales, Wis. "In my heart I think this will, down the road, become one of the standards of care."
Homemade bombs called Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, are the leading killer of coalition troops in the Afghan war. Even those without visible injury, but who were close to a blast, can feel the pressure wave from the explosion rush through their bodies. A concussion is caused by the pressure wave traveling through the brain, without anything necessarily hitting the head.
Some are knocked unconscious, and ruptured eardrums aren't uncommon. Even those who don't black out can have the same debilitating after-effects: dizziness, loss of balance, ringing in the ear, crushing insomnia, an aversion to light and a pounding headache. It typically takes two weeks to recover from the concussion, Stuessi said.
Gunnery Sgt. Williams, a 36-year-old Marine from Brunswick County, N.C., who said he wouldn't give his first name out of superstition, was 10 days in from a concussion he received in Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand when he arrived in Stuessi's office. Climbing down off a roof, during a mission to set up a new patrol base, a soldier three feet in front of him stepped on an IED — and had to have both legs amputated below the knee.
Williams was knocked unconscious for about 10 seconds, and sustained a grade-three concussion, the most severe, though he was otherwise unhurt. Others realized something was wrong when he started talking nonsense, and he was airlifted to a hospital.
The next day, Williams had all the symptoms of concussion: a severe headache, poor balance, dizziness and excess sensitivity to light. Worse, he couldn't sleep. On the fourth day after the incident, the most grueling day for the headache, Stuessi suggested he try acupuncture.
"I didn't know much about acupuncture, but I was willing to try anything to get back (to duty)," Williams said. "That night, I slept for about 10 hours, and when I woke, the headache wasn't as severe."
Williams has had four acupuncture sessions with Stuessi, and is sleeping well. Sleep is the most important cure for concussion.
"It (acupuncture) relaxes me a lot. I always feel good after the treatment," Williams said. "The headache is gone. There's still some ringing in my ear, and I'm still working on the balance. But hopefully this week, I'll return to full duty, get back to my Marines."
Stuessi has treated 50 patients with acupuncture, at the specialist Concussion Restoration Care Center at Camp Leatherneck, and describes the results as "phenomenal." After one treatment, patients are often getting a full night's sleep and the headache is greatly reduced in intensity.
"People will always be skeptical. I may not be able to explain what's happening at a cellular level, and some of the affect could be placebo, but if the pain goes away, I don't care too much about that," said Stuessi.
Scientific studies on acupuncture haven't been able to prove its effectiveness. But Stuessi isn't alone in using it in the U.S. military. The Navy alone has now trained about 50 doctors in acupuncture, Stuessi said. The Air Force, for instance, uses the technique to dampen the pain on the long flights for evacuating wounded soldiers back to the U.S. Stuessi thought it worked by adjusting the "neural pathways" in the body.
"It's like rewiring a computer; you're hitting certain nerves in the body. So instead of sending up a pain signal to the brain, they send up a signal saying everything's OK. It's almost like faking out the brain," Stuessi said.
Though it's not a technique that's part of conventional Western medicine, the National Institutes of Health is examining acupuncture as a means of speeding recovery for soldiers.
Last week in Washington, Defense Department personnel met with researchers and members of the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to discuss the military's continued exploration of acupuncture.
Karen J. Sherman, an NIH-funded acupuncture researcher with the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle who attended the meeting, said that despite skepticism, the military remains interested.
"There's no doubt about it," Sherman said. "The addition of acupuncture to usual care seems to be beneficial, at least in the short term," from six to 12 months after treatment.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Tony Pugh contributed to this article from Washington.)
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