VA Explores Alternative Therapies

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux | Stars and Stripes | October 19, 2014

The acupuncturist in his glow-in-the-dark yellow Crocs gently leaned over the burly and bearded Army Special Operations officer, who was stretched across a bed in the "zen den" of the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center.  The air was sweet with eucalyptus and peppermint aromatherapy. The lighting was warm, fluttering with the golden hue of battery-operated candles. A funky Indian elephant batik hung on the wall. The retired lieutenant colonel, who had been injured in a combat plane crash, inhaled and exhaled as the doctor pressed needles into his knees.

Like hundreds of veterans from across the country who have come to this VA hospital for treatment of chronic pain, panic attacks, traumatic injuries and other ailments, he said he was so fed up with taking heavy-duty painkillers that he was willing to try anything.  The alternative-therapy programs mark a dramatic departure in the treatment offered to troops who are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeking relief from pain.  Among the options: Equine therapy. Alpha Stimulation. Qigong. Guided Imagery. Life coaching. Yoga and Pilates. Hypnosis. Aqua therapy. Botox.

The Richmond, Virginia hospital and three other pilot programs offering these therapies are part of an effort by the Veterans Health Administration to reduce the dependence of tens of thousands on opiate painkillers. While doctors say the highly addictive drugs can help in the short term, they also can be harmful and often require another round of prescription pills to counteract side effects that can include insomnia, constipation, bone pain, anxiety and depression...