RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now to a treatment that years ago migrated from China to the U.S. and is now being embraced by America's military. Acupuncture is now among the alternative treatments available to those in uniform. The top brass have told Army doctors to rethink their pill for every ill approach to pain. So for the 47,000 troops who've been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan that means there are other options, like massage, chiropractic treatments, and especially acupuncture.
And as Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The military hopes to win over skeptics, many of them in uniform.
COLONEL ROCHELLE WASSERMAN: I'm one of them.
FARMER: Colonel Rochelle Wasserman is the top doctor for the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. But to her own surprise, she's also now the unit's physician trained to do acupuncture.
WASSERMAN: I actually had a demonstration of acupuncture on me, and I'm not a spring chicken and it didn't make me 16 again. But it certainly did make me feel better than I had. So I figured, hey, you know, let's give it a shot with our soldiers here.
FARMER: In recent years, military doctors have turned to acupuncture in special pain clinics and for troops in battle zones. But last year, the Army Surgeon General began making the alternative treatments more widely available.
WASSERMAN: All right...
FARMER: In a fluorescent-lit exam room, Wasserman sticks ballpoint-size pins in the ears of Sergeant Rick Remalia.
WASSERMAN: Let's go ahead and start with the points that we did before.
FARMER: In Afghanistan, Remalia broke his back, hip, and pelvis during a rollover caused by a pair of rocket-propelled grenades. He still walks with a cane and suffers from mild traumatic brain injury. Pain is an everyday occurrence, which is where the needles come in.
WASSERMAN: What would you say was the comfort level while you actually had them in? Any major league problems?
SERGEANT RICK REMALIA: I've had a lot of treatment, and this is the first treatment that I've had where I've been like, OK, well, you know, I'm actually seeing a really big difference.
FARMER: Remalia says his headaches have disappeared and he's relying less on his cabinet-full of pain medication. To Colonel Kevin Galloway, that's mission accomplished. He's in charge of carrying out recommendations from the Army's Pain Management Task Force, which focused heavily on unconventional therapies.
COLONEL KEVIN GALLOWAY: You can throw fairly cheap pharmaceuticals at the problem now and push the problem to someone else later if you're not really working on what the genesis of the pain is.
FARMER: Galloway says if soldiers get hooked on high-powered pain killers, the VA may be dealing with the side effects for decades to come. Already, at least 40 percent of vets entering the VA system are coping with pain.
New academic studies from places like Duke University back up acupuncture as an alternative to medication.
DR. HARRIET HALL: We call that quack-ademic medicine when it gets into medical schools.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FARMER: Harriet Hall shares the skepticism found in many corners of the medical community. She's a former Air Force flight surgeon, too. The way she reads the science, acupuncture does no more than a sugar pill. To offer a placebo, she says, is unethical.
HALL: The military has led the way on trauma care and things like that. But the idea that putting needles in somebody's ear is going to substitute for things like morphine is just ridiculous.
FARMER: But to quote some top medical officers, there's nothing like pain to make someone open-minded. Staff Sergeant Jermaine Louis says he's tried it all.
STAFF SARGEANT JERMAINE LOUIS: Wow. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, PTSD group, anger group, stress group, all - you know, everything.
FARMER: Louis is trying to overcome a traumatic brain injury that followed him home from Iraq five years ago. He's still dependent on medication. And the soon-to-retire infantryman says he's scared.
LOUIS: That I have to be on it for the rest of my life and I will get accustomed to just to taking them. And I don't want to be that way. You know, I want to be normal like everybody else.
FARMER: But if being normal depends on regular acupuncture treatments, the Defense Department has more convincing to do. TRICARE, the military's own health plan for service members and retirees, still doesn't cover acupuncture.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.