Health: Taking cues from the U.S. Military

By Stephanie Vilendrer

War veterans are replacing pain with peace through alternative and complementary medicine. Last week, I watched a new documentary called “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.” If you ever have the opportunity to see this film, go! This was among the best health documentaries that has been produced in the last few years, and it brings light to a highly critical issue. About 40 percent of U.S. war veterans are coping with pain. The traditional strategy for pain management has been to give painkillers, which, although effective, can be highly addictive and result in prescription drug abuse. According to a speech given before the House of Representatives last August regarding this issue, 150 U.S. soldiers died from drug overdose in the last two years. One of the aspects of this film that particularly caught my interest was the use of holistic medicine in the U.S. military. I was surprised to learn that the military would be willing to embrace non-traditional medical practices. Yet acupuncture, massage, chiropractics and mind-body therapies are now used for war veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain. Hopefully, the incorporation of complementary and alternative medical practices (CAM) in the military is reflective of a greater shift toward a more holistic approach to our overall health care system to come. One of the ways in which the military has acknowledged the issue has been to turn to gentler, non-habit-forming therapies. Acupuncture has proven to be a highly effective method to relieve pain and reduce the use of painkillers for soldiers. While many soldiers and military health care personnel remain skeptical, multiple studies show that acupuncture is more effective than placebos in managing pain and other disease conditions. My own experience with the healing benefits of acupuncture has turned me into a proponent of this therapy, which has been practiced for over 3,000 years. Research on acupuncture with children and animals suggests that its effects are independent of placebo. Other strategies that have been incorporated into health care for military personnel are those focused on the mind-body connection: yoga, guided meditation and even virtual worlds. These therapies aim to lessen physical and psychological pain and trauma, such as that experienced with burn wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder. Morphine has been the traditional therapy for pain management but is relatively ineffective for intense pain experienced during wound cleaning and treatment. One solution has been the utilization of SnowWorld, a virtual reality program in which soldiers enter into a chilly, arctic reality of penguins and snowmen. Researchers have found that by directing patients’ focus away from their pain using virtual reality, their comfort significantly increases. In addition to physical pain, PTSD is also being addressed through the brain-body connection with yoga nidra, which is a form of guided meditation that reduces stress and depression. About 15 to 20 percent of war veterans are at risk of PTSD. Yoga nidra is an alternative or complement to the traditional therapies of antidepressants and psychotherapy in preventing night terrors and healing traumatic memories. Replacing unnecessary prescription drugs with effective, non-habit-forming CAM therapies such as acupuncture and guided meditation could have positive consequences that reach beyond the management of physical and emotional trauma. For example, reducing the number of painkillers prescribed each year could prevent drug abuse by American youth. A recent study showed that behind marijuana, painkillers are the second most commonly used recreational drug. Emergency room visits for painkiller abuse are more than twice as common today as they were in 2004, and deaths resulting from accidental overdoses are three times more common than in the 1990s. In fact, there are more overdose-associated deaths every year resulting from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The frequency of painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. is four more times as common today as they were 15 years ago. Without even requesting a painkiller, a friend was recently prescribed Vicodin for three stitches. I can think of numerous other examples in which friends or family were unnecessarily prescribed these potentially addictive drugs. Our goal in medicine should always be the least amount of intervention for the greatest impact. Non-pharmaceutical therapies such as those now in use by the U.S. military for pain relief and post-traumatic stress disorder provide exactly that. Utilizing effective, low-cost therapies throughout our health care system could potentially save billions of dollars on prescription drugs and medical procedures. More importantly, it would certainly reduce the number of accidental deaths from drug overdose or drug interactions and cases of prescription drug addiction. While more and more health care practitioners are endorsing holistic therapies, this documentary film provided a glimpse of hope that we may be nearing a tipping point in moving toward a more holistic, non-pharmaceutical-centered health care system. refresh –>