When Michael Belliveau of North Bend walked into the White Clinic at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center Tuesday, he was enthusiastic about the possibility of decreasing his shoulder pain and reducing his need for the cortisone shots he’s been receiving to treat it.
Belliveau, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran, said his shoulders are “shot,” due to the many years he worked as a contractor.
He placed his hopes in the battlefield acupuncture treatment now available to veterans. Based on ancient, 5,000-year-old teachings of Chinese medicine, the treatment was adapted by an Air Force doctor to military needs. The Roseburg VA has been offering battlefield acupuncture for about nine months now.
After hearing a brief explanation of what to expect, Belliveau was on board.
“Wonderful. I’m excited, looking forward to it. Let’s go,” he said.
Nurse Marlene McBride punched tiny gold-plated needles about one millimeter deep into the skin of Belliveau’s ear. In between punches, she asked him to stand up and walk around, to see if the needles were having an effect.
He wasn’t feeling much pain when he came in. That comes after the cortisone shots wear off, he said. But he made an effort to twist his arms around and use them to push down on a chair, and he found it didn’t hurt.
“There might be some good results at this point,” he said.
He left optimistic that he’d still be feeling good when the cortisone was gone. Acupuncture’s had “thousands of years with great results,” he said. He thinks it’s about time it was offered at the VA.
Loy Knutzen, a 36-year-old Army veteran from Canyonville, was feeling a lot of pain when he came in. On a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the worst pain he’d ever felt, he ranked his pain between a 7 and an 8. He injured his ankle, and afterward, the rest of his lower body began to “go downhill,” he said.
He used to receive Vicodin for his pain, but that’s been taken away from him, he said. Now he takes gabapentin, a drug usually used to treat seizure disorders, and muscle relaxants. They don’t really work, he said. Most days, he handles the pain by gritting his teeth.
When the treatment began, he described a stabbing pain on the left side of his back and lesser pain on the right. As each new needle went in, he reported a slight decrease in pain. The pain on his right side went away, while the left side improved. That pain score dropped to 5, and then, by the end, to 4 or 4.5.
Knutzen said he was surprised the right side improved as quickly as it did, and said he hoped the pain would continue to decrease over the coming week.
“Time will tell,” he said.
McBride is the assistant nurse manager for the Brookings VA Clinic, and she’s also currently acting as the associate chief nurse executive for the Eugene VA Clinic. Both those clinics are run by the Roseburg VA. Before moving to Brookings, she was a nurse in the private sector in Texas.
McBride had heard about acupuncture, but hadn’t used it until she arrived in Oregon. She said VA Nurse Executive Barb Galbraith favored using the treatment as an alternative to opioids, and some of the VA’s nurses began acupuncture training in July. Four nurses in the system are able to offer the treatment now.
It’s a quick and relatively painless procedure, one that’s based on the Chinese belief that the body’s energy, called “chi,” must be balanced. The energy is said to flow through pathways called meridians, and pain and illness are thought to be caused by blockage in the energy’s flow.
Sometimes, the pain reduction is quick and dramatic. Patients come in using their walkers and leave carrying their walkers, McBride said.
Some suggest the success is due to the suggestion in the veteran’s mind that it will work. Whether it’s placebo effect or a direct impact from the needles, McBride has found that her patients get relief from the treatment. Some also feel a sense of peace.
“Some veterans will describe it as a high. A euphoria can sometimes be felt when those pathways are opened,” she said.
She said the experience has been described to her as the equivalent of a “three-beer buzz.” A few veterans get such an overwhelming feeling that they just start to cry.
The VA’s also looking into other alternative therapies, like yoga and tai chi.
McBride said it’s a joy to see people coming in who have been struggling with pain, but leave knowing they have found an alternative that works for them.
“I think that’s why we’re so passionate about it, because anything that will help, we want to make sure and provide,” she said.