The U.S. military is applying an ancient Chinese healing technique to the top modern battlefield injury for American soldiers, with results that doctors here say are "off the charts."
"Battlefield acupuncture," developed by Air Force physician Col. Richard Niemtzow, is helping heal soldiers with concussions so they can return more quickly to the front lines.
At Camp Leatherneck, a Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, a military doctor's consulting room has dim little Christmas lights arranged across the ceiling and new age music playing.
Cmdr. Keith Stuessi asks his patients to relax in his darkened chamber and then gently inserts hair-thin needles into special points on their body. The needles might look gruesome but don't hurt.
Stuessi, a naval doctor whose rank is equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel, treats concussions, also known as mild brain trauma.
"I'm seeing pretty incredible results," said Stuessi, who's based at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, and is originally from Wales, Wis. "In my heart I think this will, down the road, become one of the standards of care."
Homemade bombs called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the leading killer of coalition troops in the Afghan war. Even those without visible injury, but who were close to a blast, can feel the pressure wave from the explosion rush through their bodies. A concussion is caused by the pressure wave traveling through the brain, without anything necessarily hitting the head.
Some are knocked unconscious, and ruptured eardrums aren't uncommon. Even those who don't black out can have the same debilitating after-effects: dizziness, loss of balance, ringing in the ear, crushing insomnia, an aversion to light and a pounding headache. It typically takes two weeks to recover from the concussion, Stuessi said.
Gunnery Sgt. Williams, a 36-year-old Marine from Brunswick County, N.C., who said he wouldn't give his first name out of superstition, was 10 days in from a concussion he received in Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand, when he arrived in Stuessi's office. Climbing down off a roof, during a mission to set up a new patrol base, a soldier 3 feet in front of him stepped on an IED -- and had to have both legs amputated below the knee.
Williams was knocked unconscious for about 10 seconds, and sustained a Grade III concussion, the most severe, though he was otherwise unhurt. Others realized something was wrong when Williams started talking nonsense, and he was airlifted to a hospital.
The next day, Williams had all the symptoms of concussion: a severe headache, poor balance, dizziness and excess sensitivity to light. Worse, he couldn't sleep. On the fourth day after the incident, the most grueling day for the headache, Stuessi suggested he try acupuncture.
"I didn't know much about acupuncture, but I was willing to try anything to get back (to duty)," Williams said. "That night, I slept for about 10 hours, and when I woke, the headache wasn't as severe."
Williams has had four acupuncture sessions with Stuessi and is sleeping well. Sleep is the most important cure for concussion.