Durham VA Health Care System
Veteran finds relief from pain with acupuncture
America is in a troubling era of opioid use. For decades, Peter Johnson, a U.S. Navy Veteran from Edenton, N.C., was caught up in the middle of that trouble. No more, he said, thanks to an effort by the Durham VA Health Care System.
Hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade while serving on a riverboat on the Cua Viet River in 1968, Johnson sustained what he described as massive head and eye injuries that in turn produced terrible headaches. “On a scale of one to 10, I know what a level 10 headache is like,” Johnson said.
Doctors treated his pain with opioid, mainly Percocet, or Oxycodone, a powerful narcotic that healthcare officials say is abused on an epidemic scale in the U.S. For years, Johnson mixed the drug with alcohol abuse, which in 1981 resulted in his heart stopping. Doctors revived him, and he has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since.
Yet the Percocet use continued and the toll on his mind and body kept rising. He would lose consciousness, could no longer drive a car, and was eventually admitted to a VA hospital. This time, Johnson said, he was determined to end his cycle of Oxycodone use. “I told them, ‘No more Percocet. I’d rather perish’. And, I was serious,” he said.
Around the same time that Johnson reached his breaking point, VA physician Michael Freedman invited him to join a new program that employs a form of acupuncture to relieve pain.
Freedman, a neurologist at the Greenville Community Based Outpatient Clinic, said Johnson is one of several Veterans who have benefited from a procedure called Battlefield Acupuncture, or BFA. Freedman explained that the therapy falls under “auricular” or ear acupuncture, which makes use “of five different points on each ear, which when taken together often reduces both acute and chronic pain.” The needles stay in place for several hours to several days, he explained, and fall out on their own.
For Johnson, the relief was immediate. After one session, his pain went from a level 10 to a zero, and with each session, his lack of pain lasted longer between procedures. At first, he was able to go four days between sessions. That lengthened to nine days. Then it was two weeks. “The last procedure I had was October 13,” he said near the end of October. “And I have no headache. And I take no drugs.”
Freedman expressed excitement about the benefits of the procedure. “For people who respond, it offers a non-pharmaceutical, non-opiate option for pain control,” he said. “It may also be used in conjunction with pharmaceutical therapy or independently depending upon the patient, situation and the response.”
Training to offer BFA is substantial. Freedman finished a 300-hour program over a 6-month period in late 2015, about half studies and half hands on. He’s completed written examination requirements for certification by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.
He is now training other VA providers in the procedure, among them Dr. Frank Lescosky. A podiatrist, Lescosky said, he “wanted another treatment option for his patients suffering from chronic pain, and acupuncture is a good and safe method.”
Lescosky encourages other providers to take the training. We are always looking for alternative treatment options, other than opioid, to help Veterans dealing with pain. And, this a great tool in the toolbox,” he said. “I plan to use this for post-op pain and for some myofascial pain.”
Johnson is enthusiastic, too, and in fact now publicly advocates for auricular acupuncture therapy, including a recent letter to Congress for more funding. “This man has literally saved my life”, he said of Freedman. “I can function as a human being. I can drive a car again. I got my memory back.”