Personalizing Veteran’s Treatment
Written by Christine Cronin, DAOM, L.Ac., Dipl. OM
For veterans living with chronic pain, the struggle to get the right treatment is, by now, all too familiar. Surging demand for services from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has run up against a severe lack of sufficient funding for the agency, resulting in a major disconnect between supply and demand. An audit released by the VA earlier this year acknowledged that 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for an initial medical appointment at a VA hospital or outpatient clinic.
To make matters worse, too many opioid prescriptions were given for too many years, leaving 68,000 veterans addicted to opioids in 2015, up by 55 percent from 2010. Fortunately, more safeguards and restrictions on opioid prescriptions have since been put in place, and the VA reports that opioid prescriptions are down in 99 percent of its facilities across the country.
Where does all of this leave veterans with chronic pain? At least 50 percent of veterans signed up for VA services complain of chronic pain, and they need relief. Veterans in particular are apt to be creative and motivated in finding solutions to their pain, but when the most commonly prescribed treatments don’t work—whether opioids, nerve blocking treatments, cryofreezing, or physical therapy—even the persistent get frustrated.
The good news for veterans is that alternative routes to treatment do exist, but they’re not talked about nearly enough. Veterans suffering from chronic pain deserve better information about the options and should be fully empowered to personalize their own care by trying different approaches and combining treatments available to them.
One place where veterans and their family members can gauge whether alternative treatments might be for them is the PCOM Veterans’ Clinic in San Diego, California, where military members and their families receive free acupuncture and massage, both of which fall under Chinese medicine, as do many of these alternative modalities. Acupuncture, one of the best-known, seeks to heal the body by stimulating specific pressure points on the body with needles, which for some helps to reduce pain by restoring flow of nutrients to the area.
Of course, Chinese medicine extends far beyond acupuncture, encompassing various other techniques including acupressure (a technique similar to acupuncture that employs touch rather than needles), cupping (in which practitioners place cups on a person’s body to create suction and draw blood to an area that needs healing), gua sha (scraping the patient’s skin to improve circulation), and massage therapy.
Between my experience in the Marine Corps and as part of the faculty at PCOM, veterans need access to other care options they might not otherwise seek out. Clinics like these need to grow, so that more veterans can discover new approaches to healing that might work better than anything they’ve tried before. Veterans have served our country, and we need to do a better job of expanding the ways in which our medical community can serve them.
For many veterans, and indeed for many Western healthcare patients in general, these healing techniques can at first seem too unfamiliar to consider. While that’s understandable, it’s important to keep in mind that Chinese medicine is a tradition with thousands of years of history. Each of its individual practitioners in the U.S. has been extensively trained in Chinese medicine, logging at least 2,000 hours of training in the field—or more than 3,000 hours to earn a master’s degree from an institution like the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM). Practitioners in the field take their training as seriously as any other medical doctor you’ll meet.
This is a crucial point to emphasize, because it’s important for veterans themselves to know that their pain conditions may change over time so what is needed may also change. What is effective treatment will shift over time, as injuries shift from the flare-up phase into the maintenance phase and, potentially, back again. Veterans need to be given the support to experiment with a wide variety of alternative treatment options and so they can take the initiative to determine what their own treatment should look like at any given time.
Christine Cronin, DAOM, LAC, DIPLOM, is a faculty member at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) and is one of the clinic supervisors at PCOM’s Veterans Free Clinic. Prior to attending PCOM, Christine earned degrees in history, political science, and psychology. After serving in the Marine Corps, she discovered her passion for helping others by treating the whole person, which led to her decision to attend PCOM. Immediately after completing her MSTOM, she began her doctoral work where she evaluated the ability of the NADA protocol to treat combat stress-induced insomnia.