Battlefield acupuncture: pseudoscience for wounded troops

In times of war, it’s tough to cut the military budget. Unthinkable, really. But what if the military is spending money on something that actually harms wounded military men and women coming back from war? Unbelievable? It should be. Today’s article describes a practice that is so bizarre, so obviously ridiculous, that some readers may think I’m making this up. I’m not.

Doctors in our military are now treating severely injured soldiers with “battlefield acupuncture,” a technique where they stick short needles into five points on the ear. Air Force doctors admit that they are using battlefield acupuncture to treat severely wounded troops as they are taken from the battlefield to Andrews Air Force Base and to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This includes soldiers with brain injuries, severed limbs, burns, and penetrating wounds.

The Air Force news website reported on this nearly two years ago when Major (Dr.) Conner Nguyen began treating wounded soldiers at Landstuhl Air Force Base in Germany, after he received training from Stephen Burns and Richard Niemtzow, military doctors from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Niemtzow has trained hundreds of military doctors in battlefield acupuncture, a method that he invented in 2001. Niemtzow also boasted in an interview last year that “if the military is using it, then it must be good for the civilian world."

Niemtzow apparently made up battlefield acupunture out of thin air. He describes the technique in detail on his website, where he also features a 2006 article with the disturbing title “Integrating Ear and Scalp Acupuncture Techniques into the Care of Blast-Injured United States Military Service Members with Limb Loss.” In that article, he wrote that he was using battlefield acupuncture to treat
“injured Service members returning home from the current conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq… [who have] have experienced a variety of blast-related injuries including limb loss, soft-tissue damage, long-bone fractures, and peripheral neuropathies.”
Battlefield acupuncture is nothing more than sticking a bunch of needles into the ear. Niemtzow illustrates the locations with this photo: Niemtzow claims that the ear acts as a "monitor" of pain signals to the brain, and that the needles somehow interrupt the pain. This claim is laughably false, and Niemtzow has never produced any scientific evidence to support his patently ridiculous practice. Somehow, though, he has convinced the U.S. Air Force to adopt it – single-handedly, it seems – and now, supported by U.S. tax dollars through the defense budget, he is training disciples to go out and practice this pseudoscience on injured soldiers.

Niemtzow even claims that 18th-century pirates pierced their ears to improve their night vision. No, I’m not making this up.

Just over a year ago, the Baltimore Sun reported that “the technique is proving so successful that the Air Force will begin teaching 'battlefield acupuncture' early next year to physicians deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.” And what evidence does the Sun provide to back this up? None, other than the anecdotal claims of Niemtsow himself and other Air Force doctors interviewed by the Sun, including Col. Anyce Tock, Col. Stephen M. Burns, and Lt. Col. Terri L. Riutcel. The Sun reporter, David Wood, did a terrible job with this article, apparently not even attempting to check these claims. He should read Dr. David Gorski’s excellent article on battlefield acupuncture at Science-Based Medicine, in which Gorski dismantles the extremely thin evidence that Niemtzow claims supports his practices. It’s like using a boulder to kill a flea, but if you really want to see the “evidence,” take a look.

Battlefied acupuncture is so ridiculously implausible that you might want to laugh out loud. When you learn that it is being taken seriously by the U.S. Air Force, and that we are spending tax dollars to train military doctors in this method, you might want to cry instead. But when you learn that Niemtsow and his disciples are actually subjecting injured soldiers to this nonsense, instead of offering real medicine, you should get pissed off.

Finally, what do the combat veterans think? I can’t imagine what it would feel like, lying in a critical care unit at Landstuhl, or back home at Andrews AFB, if a doctor said “hey, we're going to stick some needles in your ear to treat your pain.” Most of the commenters at the website reacted with derision, appropriately enough. One commented ironically,
“I thought acupuncture on the battlefield was the whole idea behind war.”
Another was more outraged, writing:
“In civilian medicine, this would be called malpractice. This smacks of using military personnel in the field as guinea pigs. That's a dangerous game. If the pain of severe trauma isn't treated effectively in a timely manner, shock and even death can follow. The military is using all sorts of quackery now, in search of cheap solutions to injuries on and off the battlefield. This is irresponsible, risky, and inhumane.”
Well said. A military force that relies on pseudoscience is a military that loses. The Air Force should put an immediate halt to their battlefield acupuncture program.
Further reading: for those who believe the irrational claim (and well-known logical fallacy) that acupuncture must work because it’s 5,000 years old, I point to Dr. Harriet Hall’s excellent demolition of that canard, in which she points out that it’s not ancient, probably not Chinese, and above all, it doesn’t work.

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