Deployed doc has Airmen on pins and needles

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
How do you wake up Lady Gaga in the morning? Poke her face. How does Lt. Col. (Dr.) Darlene Smallman treat patients in pain? Same way.

Smallman is a flight surgeon deployed to the 380th Expeditionary Medical Group from the Pentagon. She's also one of about a hundred medical professionals in the Air Force trained to use acupuncture needles and techniques as part of her repertoire in helping people.

"No one knows exactly how acupuncture works, but what we do know is that proper technique and application is extremely effective at treating everything from pain to weight loss," said Smallman, a Neosho, Wis., native.

Certified practitioners of acupuncture like Smallman are trained to insert needles of various sizes at specific points on the body. This process affects specific nerve clusters or trigger points, and helps treat the body for various ailments.

Smallman studied at the Air Force Acupuncture Center on Joint Base Andrews, Md. Experts there developed techniques called "battlefield acupuncture" to help military suffering from rashes, pain, stress, migraines and even post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

"Acupuncture is just another tool in our toolbox we have to help people," Smallman said. "With battlefield acupuncture, we use traditional techniques targeted at issues military members have most often. The program is relatively easy to teach to other physicians in the field, and we've had a lot of success with it."

For Maj. Amber Hirsch, the 380th AEW judge advocate, acupuncture helped with chronic pain she has in her hip. While deployed to Iraq in 2007, the major aggravated a previous hip injury. After she returned home, she'd seen doctors at four different bases. Each one had a different diagnosis and prescribed various medications. None of them worked.

All that changed when Hirsch started seeing Smallman. The doctor applied 4 mm needles to specific points in Hirsch's ears, instantly dulling the pain in her hip.

"It's strange, I know, but it works," said Hirsch, deployed from Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind. "I was completely skeptical at first, but I talked to one of the doctors here and they recommended it. Then I saw another girl who had it done for back pain and she said it worked. I'd been dealing with the pain for so long; I figured I didn't have anything to lose."

Hirsch said the needles don't hurt much at all. It's like "when they prick your finger for a blood test," Hirsch said.

"But totally worth it, especially for as well as it works, at least for me," she said.

The acupuncture experience is a very personal treatment and doesn't necessarily work for everyone, Smallman cautioned.

"We want people to have realistic expectations about acupuncture; it's not the cure for cancer," she said. "It's one more way we have of helping people deal with pain in their lives.

"And if it does work in someone, it saves a lot of time and money we might otherwise spend sending them to a pain specialist, for example," she added. "It's an effective and inexpensive way for people to manage pain or other issues."

Since being deployed, Smallman has helped dozens of people through acupuncture.

"Patients get excited because it's something different they haven't tried, and then get even more excited when it works," Smallman said. "The best advice I can offer anyone is if someone is curious about whether acupuncture might work for them, they should ask their doctor."