USAF AIM center places needle focus on warfighters’ health

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joe Yanik
  • Air Force District of Washington

(This story is the third of 10 stories about the more than 1,500 Air Force health care professionals who make up the 79th Medical Wing and the vast expertise they bring to executing the organization's mission of providing medical services for expeditionary deployment and defense operations in the National Capital Region and around the world.)

“Take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Most of us who’ve been to a doctor to be treated for pain have heard these words, or something similar, uttered. Popping pain pills, like Vicodin or Codeine, is a traditional, western form of pain management that has met with varying degrees of success.

Dr. Niemtzow, U.S. Air Force Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine Center director, and his team of acupuncture and integrative medical physicians at the 779th Medical Group at Joint Base Andrews, Md., have devoted years of study and practice to develop medical care “you don’t have to swallow.”

Specifically designed with the warfighter in mind, the 779th MDG’s Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine facility is the DoD’s only clinic with full-time, dedicated licensed acupuncture physicians delivering needle and non-needle pain management options to thousands of military and civilian patients every year.

“The patients who come to us are often not responding to western medicine,” said Niemtzow. “Many of them are taking opioids for chronic pain, but they find that the pain remains and side effects increase. So, they become health care liabilities that result in devastating public health problems, which sometimes includes addiction.”

There are several forms of needle and non-needle acupuncture therapy protocols that the AIM center performs on its patients. The one being implemented across the Air Force is Battlefield Acupuncture, or BFA.

BFA is a technique Niemtzow developed in 2001 that involves inserting five tiny needles into specific areas of the patients’ ear. The needles remain in place for three to five days. This standardized technique, which takes minutes to complete, can be performed by non-acupuncturist medical professionals in the field.

To explain how acupuncture reduces or eliminates pain for the vast majority of patients he treats with BFA, Niemtzow said that the needles inserted into the ears directly modify the way the brain and central nervous system process pain.

“The brain is like a computer; the ears are much like a computer’s keyboard manipulating how the brain receives information from the body,” said Niemtzow.

Dr. Thomas Piazza, Air Force Acupuncture Program director and a member of Niemtzow’s staff of physicians, said how acupuncture is effective in reducing pain is not fully explainable because not enough research and grand-scale clinical trials have been conducted.

“There is extensive evidence that proves acupuncture is safe and without side effects,” said Piazza.

He added that more research is needed to demonstrate why it’s effective for most but not all patients.

The conditions treated by Niemtzow and his staff are wide ranging. A list includes complications with digestive and respiratory systems as well as gynecological, musculoskeletal, mental health and urogenital issues.

Piazza said that back pain and skeletal disorders are the most common issues he sees in patients who are military members.

As an added benefit to having no side effects, the AIM center's alternative forms of pain management are more affordable to the warfighter and more cost-efficient for the government.

“Medications and surgeries are expensive,” Piazza said. “Often times, our treatments make these expenses unnecessary. AIM means cost-effective health care with the same or superior benefits.”

Because of their proven success of reducing pain among patients, alternative forms of pain management, like the treatments offered at the AIM center, have become more mainstream in the military community in recent years.

The 779th MDG’s AIM center provides its patients at JBA and elsewhere with a viable option to substitute or supplement traditional health care treatment. In doing so, the care delivered by Niemtzow and his staff has a force multiplying effect. When successfully treated, warfighters can return faster to being operationally capable, and can enjoy an improved overall quality of life.

“In the coming years, our goal is to ensure all of our military patients have access to some form of integrative medical treatments, like BFA, to manage their pain,” said Piazza. “Achieving this means we can deliver better healthcare by shifting the focus on treating patients, rather than treating their diseases.”