When it comes to the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture, all that’s old is new again.

Acupuncture, which involves the placement of tiny needles into key points on the body, is now being used in a groundbreaking new PTSD teaching clinic on the West Los Angeles VA campus, as well as the emergency department and other clinical settings.

When Navy Veteran Johnny Theissen first started coming to the clinic seven months ago, he was using a walker and struggling with a variety of other issues. Since then, he’s undergone a “transformation” and speaks glowingly of how acupuncture has been a catalyst.

“A lot of the treatments I get at neurology and other clinics, they’re great, but here it just seems like they pinpoint a certain area and it gives me relief, physically and mentally. It helps me in all aspects of everything I’ve been doing. It’s amazing,” he recalled.

Dr. Jeremiah Krieger, Greater Los Angeles VA’s first full-time doctor of Chinese medicine, created the clinic a year ago. Theissen is just one of many Veteran participants who credit Krieger and other acupuncture providers for helping them heal.

What is acupuncture?

While acupuncture is most commonly known for treating pain, it’s also been applied to a wide array of other conditions, from gastrointestinal issues to PTSD to reproductive health. The practice dates back about 3,000 years.

Veteran receiving acupuncture
“It’s safe, not painful and has really good results.”
In 2018, VA published a standard that permitted licensed acupuncturists to be hired at VA Medical Centers. Krieger and Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, who’s been chief of integrative medicine since 2013, have been at the forefront of acupuncture’s growth within the system.

How do tiny needles help heal the body? Scientists are still learning how and why acupuncture works, explained Krieger, but there is evidence that shows it causes the body to release anti-inflammatory cytokines, immune modulators, endorphins and endogenous opiates.

“It improves blood flow to injury sites. It calms the brain centers involved in pain and trauma, promotes neuroplasticity and helps the brain to create new, healthier pathways,” Krieger said.

Earlier this year, physicians at Long Beach VA, along with other researchers, published “Acupuncture for Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, A Randomized Clinical Trial,” which found acupuncture to be effective in treating PTSD symptoms.

Soothing symptoms

A year ago, Krieger launched the Tuesday afternoon PTSD clinic where acupuncture doctoral trainees from Santa Monica-based Emperors College come to West LA VA Medical Center to treat Veterans.

There, a large room became a soothing sanctuary, complete with calming sounds, comfortable chairs, tables to lie on and compassionate staff.

Krieger has witnessed incredible results during these clinics and in other settings. He and Dr. Thomas Blair, deputy chief of the emergency department, collaborated to initiate a program where acupuncture is used in the ED.

There, Krieger has seen patients endure kidney stones without pharmaceutical relief, regain the ability to breathe normally despite early heart failure, and deal with metastatic cancer pain after breaking through their opiates, all thanks to the ancient practice.

“It’s safe, not painful and has a really good clinical result. It’s a great way of trying to help health problems, and it’s healing and gentle on the body versus harsher treatment options like surgeries or medications,” he said.

Acupuncture’s expansion

The PTSD clinic and the emergency department are just a couple of the ways acupuncture is being used. Friday’s walk-in battlefield acupuncture clinic for pain is well-attended by Veteran patients.

Dr. Beverly Haas, mental health lead for the Domiciliary Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program at West LA VA, has seen the effects of acupuncture firsthand in the Veterans she works with.

“They really like going there. They always look forward to going back and they feel like it helps a lot with lowering their stress, lowering their anxiety and also their pain,” Haas said. In a letter she submitted to VA leaders, she reported that many of the Veterans describe the treatment as “a game-changer.”

Krieger’s clinic is booked two months in advance. He hopes to see the use of acupuncture continue to expand, particularly in the realm of mental health.

“If a Veteran knows you care and you’re giving them your best, they are the most grateful, loyal, awesome and appreciative group of people I’ve ever worked with. It’s hugely rewarding. Good medicine mixed with kindness, that’s the stuff of miracles,” he added.

Many Veterans report acupuncture can seem intimidating at first but that keeping an open mind is key, said Theissen. “Really just listen to what they have to say.”

“Give acupuncture a chance,” added Army Veteran Bradley Griffin, another attendee at the clinic. “It’s weird, but it works. Try it for yourself first and then decide.” Griffin is pictured in the top photo during an acupuncture treatment.

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