I’ve Got Your More Responsible Pain Management, Right Here

Not many of you would know this but I had my first experience with acupuncture the other day.

I went to see a physical medicine doctor about a TENS unit because my current dose of my narcotic pain medication for breakthrough migraine and body pain is no longer sufficiently covering the amount of breakthrough pain I am having, and as a personal preference I have decided to seek alternative methods before I agree to increase the current dosage (which honestly, I am already trying to squeak by with as little as possible because the hospital here is so stingy with it, and I am trying to be Model Patient). The physical medicine doctor, for whom I would make up a name for him, but in all honesty, I have, currently, three Dr. Kims and two Dr. Lees  so I don’t feel the need to do so, agreed quickly to get me set up with the TENS unit. I just have to come in to see the physical therapist to try it out, and they will order it for me. In the week between, Dr. Kim asked if I would like to try acupuncture.

Now, I have a very high level of phobia surrounding needles, and the thought of acupuncture, being pins, doesn’t stray too far from that for me. This is not the first time I have been asked to try acupuncture. But Dr. Kim wasn’t pushy. He offered it casually, mentioned that he is licensed and certified, and that he could start right away, if I wanted to. He smiled in an understanding manner when I explained that I was afraid that any benefit might be canceled out by my anxiety.

He spent ten minutes calmly explaining to me a slightly different method, more commonly known to military doctors as “Battlefield Acupuncture”, where pins go in my ears and stay for a week or so, at its most basic form. I agreed to try it, not wanting to have another doctor click their tongue at me for not trying everything and not wanting to give anyone a chance to call me a drug seeker. But when I say “pins” I tell you that these tiny things felt like thumb tacks piercing my non-pierced ears, five in each ear with two in the inner part (ten total). I was instructed to sleep in a supine position, which would screw up my sleep, since I am a side sleeper. But he told me to keep them as long as I could stand them.

I lasted two nights of thrashing around. And The Guy told me he was proud of me for sticking it out that long. I felt like I was in agony the whole time. I could think of nothing else.

I have seen noticed that the military is leaning towards pushing acupuncture on troops, which I think is odd, since getting other “alternative” care (things as innocuous as chiropractic care) and getting it covered by our insurance is like getting a root canal. I believe that more options is better, but it was the framing of these alternatives that bothered me.

The first time I had heard that acupuncture was being offered to troops was in an AFN commercial. AFN is the military’s overseas entertainment network, both on television and radio. They offer commercial free programming for military families. But they have AFN sponsored spots and informercials. One of those was for acupuncture, celebrating the troops who were asking for it, choosing to treat their pain in “responsible ways”, which clearly spoke to me that people who received no help from such methods (such as I discovered I did not), or where it was not available, or who chose not to, were irresponsible for choosing narcotic pain relief methods.

And that just doesn’t sit well with me. I will defend against screeds like this writer at Forbes, who are just simply dismissive of methods that have helped actual people, because the author is deliberately dismissing their experiences. That would be like someone telling me that all chiropractors are quacks because they don’t ever help anyone, when I know for a fact that the last doctor to give me actual, long-term relief that didn’t require daily narcotic care was a chiropractor specially trained in treating patients with fibromyalgia. At the same time, however, I know that suggesting that because I use certain medication to manage my pain doesn’t make me less responsible. I am pretty sure that managing my pain makes me responsible for my pain. Certain people may not like how I am choosing to do it, but it is still up to me how I choose to do so, making it my responsibility. No one but me gets to make a moral judgment on that.

It isn’t widely available. I am fortunate, were I willing to give it another go (and possibly, I might be talked into the more traditional style). Acupuncture is widely practiced in Korea, so it is readily available. But not every military medical center is so well equipped. In fact, I think your chances of getting chiropractic care are better. They’ve hit the big ones, like Walter Reed, and it seems Fort Hood, which has a high deployment rate, has one as well. I am unclear how many other branch facilities are joining…but that is hardly accessible with so many needing it. I am also unclear if this is widely available to family members, or if this is another perk to my medical record still being messed up because of Dick Cheney’s privacy law funhouse or whatever it was that has left me listed as still active duty and of a higher rank than I actually was (and yet, with my hyphenated post-married name, which I never used while active duty…).

Often times it is being coupled with Chaplain care and yoga, which isn’t going to help everyone, and you shouldn’t be forced into one in order to get the other. Nothing adds to my needle phobia like you praying for my soul. And sometimes people with chronic pain shouldn’t be forced into certain types of exercise, which really is the Military Way, I know, but they need to understand that it can do more harm than good.

It’s a big Catch-22 of hope. I hope to see a broadening of options opened up for the masses of troops coming back from battle hurting from a decade of two wars (why, yes, I do say that a lot), or even as a way to help troops still in combat zones who have to stay and carry on. I hate to see it being set up as another way to shame people into using it if they aren’t ready to be the shiny happy Model Patient.

3 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post!
    I’ve sunk many hundreds of dollars into acupuncture over a couple of years. I had a great practitioner, but it didn’t really help me at all. I found narcotics to work really well for a bunch of my pain. I’m always for acknowledging people treating their pain in the *way that works for them* best. I shudder when I hear about acupuncture or other treatments being called “responsible” treatment. As if having pain that doesn’t respond is somehow “irresponsible”.

  2. Navigating all the “moral” and legal issues around pain treatment is just such a quagmire.

    When I was first disabled by chronic illness, I did get “regular” acupuncture for six months, and during that time, my doctor once did the week-long ear thingies. I have multiple piercings in both ears, but I remember that week as one of discomfort — especially feeling those little buggers pressing into my head when I tried to sleep. I much prefer the regular needles.

    The Chinese medicine doctor I saw really believed me and was nonjudgmental about my illness. At that time, I was making the rounds to “alternative” as well as traditional Western MDs, trying to get diagnosis and treatment, and she was so much more *human* than any of the rest. When I became too sick to go to her office, she even made housecalls and didn’t charge a huge bunch extra.

    The acupuncture didn’t hurt or scare me (the herbs I had to brew and drink, though, smelled and tasted like burning tires), but since its only therapeutic effects was having someone in the healing professions be nice to me every week (for which I’m still grateful), I had to give it up. I really hope the acupuncture or TENS works for you!

  3. I just got around to reading this now.

    I’ve been seeing an acupuncturist/chiropractor as part of my pain management for… about 2 years now consistently. I had seen him for a few weeks about a year or two prior to this two year period but the first time I tried it, it didn’t do anything for me.

    It works better this time around and I don’t know why. I get the chiropractic too – I know it’s controversial. I know. Some people are like, “Why don’t you try alternative medicine it’s safer and all-natural and has less side effects” etc etc but other people will be like, “Alternative medicine is bunk.” I don’t know who I’m supposed to believe.

    So I think I’ll just believe myself.

    I get TENS therapy at acupuncture, sometimes. I don’t need it much lately but it in conjunction with acupuncture at the same time (the electric wires were hooked up to just two needles) – I am very impressed with the result. I don’t know why that did something.
    I had already started physical therapy by the time I tried the TENS unit at acupuncture. So that may have influenced part of why it worked so well when it did.

    But I absolutely *hate* this “Battlefield acupuncture” you describe. We tried that already.
    Didn’t work. It just felt annoying. These sticky patches with needles in the middle were applied to me. I forget where. Ears for sure but I think I also had one on my hand and one on my… leg? I forget.They can go anywhere. And there’s a magnet behind the needle. And it’s really awkward and uncomfortable and doesn’t do anything for me. It was like it was supposed to keep the needles in place long-term between appointments but like it wasn’t even worth it to me. If the acupuncturist wants to try it on me I’ll let him but they’re just going to fall off of me after 2 or 3 days anyway.

    I would really not be comfortable if someone were to make it an either/or choice for me, “You can either have alternative meds OR conventional painkillers.” Sometimes I may need both!
    The thing is…
    sometimes…
    people seem to be doing just that.