As her husband pushed her into the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Gainesville back in 2016, Bridget Savoie had her doubts about a pain remedy that involved a doctor sticking needles into her ears.
A short time later, after walking to the parking lot relatively pain free, she was a believer.
Pathological nerve damage has crippled Savoie, who served four years in the Air Force followed by a second career in the National Guard. Those needles in her ears ease the chronic pain, allowing the 51-year-old to live a much more normal life.
“I still use a walker when I’m outside or if I’m going shopping,” she said, “but it’s just for a balancing issue.”
Savoie said she tries to see the doctor every two weeks for treatment, but sometimes there’s no appointment available and she suffers until the doctor can fit her in.
With concerns of opioid addiction top of mind, patients at the Jacksonville VA Outpatient Clinic on North Jefferson Street are turning to acupuncture instead of prescription medication to treat severe pain.
The procedure, called Battlefield Acupuncture, was developed in 2001 by retired Air Force Col. Richard Niemtzow in an effort to quickly relieve pain for military personnel in the field and as an alternative to traditional treatments.
The gold-plated needles are about 2 millimeters long and easily fit in combat pockets. The procedure is so simple military medics can be trained in a few hours without traditional acupuncture schooling that’s often lengthy and not nearly as practical.
The needles are placed in sequence into five points in each ear. Doctors alternate ears until the patient is completely pain free or all 10 needles are in the ears. Unlike traditional acupuncture treatments where long needles remain in the body for a short period of time before they are removed by a physician, the tiny needles stay in place until they fall out days later.
Savoie said she’s learned to sleep with her hand cupped over her ear so her pillow doesn’t knock out the needles. She also waits a few days before washing her hair because that’s another way they easily fall free.
Robert Powell, 47, is a Navy veteran who suffers from chronic neck and back pain. He received his first treatment Thursday in Jacksonville and noticed results immediately.
“I bet you I’m going to sleep well tonight,” Powell said after all 10 needles were in his ears.
He said his pain level was at a four out of 10 when he sat on the examination table, but it was close to a zero when he left the office.
“It works remarkably well with almost no side effects,” said Robert G. Lee, a primary-care physician who administers the procedure.
He said the way it works is the needles activate certain areas of the brain that dampen incoming pain signals. It usually works for all types of pain, Lee said, from kidney stones to joint pain to headaches.
“For some people this doesn’t work at all,” Lee said. “For some people it works fantastically. Most people are somewhere in between.”
He said the needles aren’t meant to heal the pain, but they do a great job to alleviate it.
The VA has made a major push recently to stop prescribing opioids for pain relief, Lee said. So patients are now given the option to try Battlefield Acupuncture.
He said it’s usually recommended that patients use multiple methods to treat chronic pain – like changing diet and exercise routines on top of doctor visits – but the trend is to avoid relying on opioids because of their dangerous side effects.
Dale Thaxton, 43, retired from the Navy after 20 years and now works as an advanced medical support assistant for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Jacksonville.
He suffers from back pain, sciatic nerve pain and migraine headaches. He can’t sit in a chair for too long and is usually stiff to the point where he can barely bend at the waist.
Although he was a little apprehensive to try Battlefield Acupuncture when Lee suggested it in late November, he was willing to try anything to relieve his pain. “I was skeptical at first,” Thaxton said.
Needles have always bothered him, and he didn’t want to endure painful pricks to his ears if it wasn’t going to work. But the results were immediate and he said the needles didn’t hurt as much as he thought they would.
“It almost feels like when you get your ears pierced,” Savoie said.
A feeling of euphoria often envelopes the patient after just the first few needles are in place, Lee said. But that goes away after about 20 or 30 minutes, and the pain relief can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the patient.
Patients are asked to stand up after each needle is inserted so they can gauge the level of relief.
Powell rolled his neck around and told the doctor he was feeling better with each needle.
Thaxton said he experienced similar results when he was treated Nov. 29.
“After he popped the sixth one I started feeling the knots in my back loosening,” Thaxton said.
He said he wasn’t completely convinced the pain relief was due to the needles in his ears. When he got home, his back and shoulders felt great. He said that was one of the best nights of sleep he’d gotten in a while and he felt even less pain when he work up.
Thaxton is due for a second treatment, and he said he plans to make Battlefield Acupuncture a regular thing if he continues to get similar results.
Lee said patients go through a process to confirm they are eligible for the treatment before they are accepted into the program. Then they are given a full rundown of the procedure so they understand what to expect. Once they’ve completed their first treatment they are welcome to receive the acupuncture on a regular basis.
The Jacksonville clinic offers group sessions where, to speed up the process, multiple people gather in the same examining room. Lee said he goes around the room inserting one needle at a time, alternating patients after each needle is in place.
Lee said civilians without VA benefits can talk to their insurance providers to find out about how to get started with acupuncture treatments to combat chronic pain.
Savoie called it “my only saving grace right now.”
Her two young children are home schooled, and they often go on educational field trips around Jacksonville. The field trips were hard for Savoie.
“I would only be able to do half the zoo if I didn’t have the Battlefield Acupuncture,” Savoie said.
Now, if she’s had a recent treatment, she can walk from the car through the whole zoo and back with very limited pain.
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308