SHERIDAN — IN 6000 BC, Chinese medicine introduced the art of acupuncture, attacking pressure points using sharpened stones. Today, acupuncture treatments at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center help transition veterans away from using opiates to manage pain.
Jimmy R. Williams Sr. served in the Marines as a third generation soldier and came home from battle with severe back pain. He used opiates to relieve that pain, but felt lethargic and bogged down by the medications.
When the Sheridan VAMC started utilizing battlefield acupuncture, Williams expressed skepticism of the alternative medicine. A few months and some heavy convincing from the pain clinic at the VA got Williams into his first appointment with Susan Bullard.
Bullard serves as the pain clinic coordinator and sole administrator of battlefield acupuncture. She punches gold needles, one millimeter long, into five points on each ear, placing 10 total needles into the ears.
The semi-permanent ear needles send neurotransmitters to the brain in areas that control the pain signals up and down the spine, working to relive pain.
Williams described his body’s reactions to the weekly treatments as euphoric and said he has started to decrease use of his prescription medication.
“I still don’t believe it,” Williams said of the treatment. “Opioids drag you down. With this I have a clear mind. I function like a 20-year-old.”
The past two decades have seen an increased dependence on opiates as a form of post-operative pain management, according to “Acupuncture’s Role in Solving the Opioid Epidemic,” an article published by six acupuncture organizations. The article said in 2012, surgeons and dentists combined prescribed 16.2 percent of all opioids in the U.S., trailing only family practices as the leading source of opioid prescriptions at 18.2 percent. Of those prescribed medications, approximately 70 percent go unused.
Acupuncture treatments reduced consumption of opioid-like medication by more than 60 percent following surgery when acupuncture is used, the article states. As a result, entities around the state, including VAs, are looking to acupuncture to help solve the opioid epidemic. Kristina Brockman Miller, the public affairs officer at Sheridan’s VA, said people would be surprised to see what technological advances are taking place behind the aged walls of the buildings on the VA campus. Bullard’s methods, brought up from her experience and training at Fort Bragg, are working to bring those methods not only to Sheridan, but to VA satellite clinics around the state of Wyoming.
There are currently more than 1,000 programs in the U.S. and Canada that now use acupuncture to help individuals overcome addiction.
While Bullard said battlefield acupuncture specifically works to help acute and chronic pain, she has also seen benefits of helping sleep and stress.
It isn’t without side effects, though. Williams felt nauseous the first time he had the treatment, but he credited the feelings to nervousness as well as the new treatment. Some patients do not react as well or as quickly as Williams, but Bullard said she still believes the practice to be effective.
Barbara Laughlin, an acupuncturist at Powder River Acupuncture in Sheridan, said patients on heavy pain medications have a harder time reacting well to acupuncture treatments. She also said older individuals take more maintenance and might have to be treated more frequently than younger patients.
Beyond reducing the dependence on opioids for pain management, acupuncture has also gained popularity due to its cost. Local acupuncturists Michael Patty with Bubbling Springs Acupuncture and Laughlin keep prices around $50 and $60 per session. Bullard’s procedures cost more than $200 for veterans, but the needles costs only $0.50 for each 1 millimeter gold needle and $1 for titanium.
“The cost versus benefit is pretty good around here,” Bullard said.
Medicare and Wyoming Medicaid currently do not cover acupuncture, but some states are starting to cover acupuncture through health insurance plans.
Sheridan pharmacist Joe Meyer said hydrocodone prescriptions cost anywhere from $20 to $30 per month for short-acting prescription opiates. Long-acting medications could cost upward of $300 to $400 per month. A typical hydrocodone tablet, one of the cheapest prescription drug options, costs $0.40 and people usually take around three or four per day.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse said rates of prescription opioid misuse are higher among service members than among civilians, typically to manage post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. Opioid addiction treatments cost anywhere from $115 per week to $1,176 per week, between buprenorphine, methadone or naltrexone treatments and administration of drugs, the institute reported.
Work in progress
Acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, yet opioid addiction still remains a significant issue in the United States. In 2016, the journal Chinese Medicine said there remains a lack of evidence that acupuncture has a strong effect in the treatment of addiction. The publication’s findings said acupuncture did not show strong value as a standalone treatment for addiction.
Still, medical professionals like Bullard are working daily to convince veterans who remain set on using prescription pain medications to try acupuncture to see how their bodies react, hoping to change the way pain is managed.