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‘It’s Amazing’: How the Ancient Art of Acupuncture is Making Waves at West LA VA

A man lying down with acupuncture needles in his ear.
Army Veteran and former infantryman Bradley Griffin undergoes an acupuncture treatment at West Los Angeles VA Medical Center’s Tuesday PTSD clinic. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeremiah Krieger and Chief of Integrative Medicine, Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, the use of acupuncture is expanding within VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, including into the emergency department. Photo by Cara Deptula.

When it comes to the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture, all that’s old is new again. Since his hiring three years ago, Dr. Jeremiah Krieger, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS), has been embracing the time-honored practice and using it to treat Veterans’ pain, PTSD, and more.

Acupuncture, which involves the placement of teeny, tiny needles into key points on the body, is now being used in a groundbreaking new PTSD teaching clinic on the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus as well as the emergency department and other clinical settings.

When Navy Veteran and former operations specialist Johnny Theissen first started coming to the clinic seven months ago, he was using a walker and struggling with a variety of other issues. Since then, he’s undergone a “transformation,” and speaks glowingly of how acupuncture has been a catalyst.

“A lot of the treatments that I get at neurology and those other clinics, they’re great, but here it just seems like they pinpoint a certain area and it gives me relief, physically and mentally. It helps me in all aspects of everything I’ve been doing,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Theissen is just one of many Veteran participants who credit Krieger and other acupuncture providers for helping them heal. 

What Is Acupuncture?

While acupuncture it is most commonly known for treating pain, it’s also been applied to a wide array of other conditions, from gastrointestinal issues to PTSD to reproductive health, and the practice dates back approximately 3,000 years.

In 2018, VA published a standard that permitted licensed acupuncturists to be hired at VA Medical Centers. Since he was hired, Krieger and Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, who’s been chief of integrative medicine for VAGLAHS since 2013, have been at the forefront of acupuncture’s growth within the system. 

 In 2020, VA released a compendium on the use of complementary and integrative health therapies including acupuncture, stating that they’re undergoing an expansion due to “mounting evidence of the effectiveness of these therapies for many conditions that, in turn has led to their inclusion in national pain management guidelines and strategies, increasing demand from Veterans, increasing need to offer non-pharmacologic pain management strategies to counter the opioid epidemic, and significant support from Congress and VA leadership.”

The Science Behind an Ancient Tradition

So how do tiny needles help heal the body? Scientists are still learning how and why acupuncture works, explained Krieger, but there is evidence that shows it causes the body to release natural endorphins and opiates.

“It improves blood flow to injury sites,” he said. “It calms the brain centers involved in pain and trauma, promotes neuroplasticity, and helps the brain to create new, healthier pathways.”

There’s a great deal of published research to support the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating different conditions. It’s been demonstrated effective for the treatment of chronic pain, with effects continuing over time, according to the 2018 study, “Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis,” by Andrew J. Vickers, Emily A. Vertosick and George Lewith, et al. 

Earlier this year, physicians at VA Long Beach, along with other researchers, published “Acupuncture for Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, A Randomized Clinical Trial,” which found acupuncture to be effective in treating PTSD symptoms.

“The adoption of acupuncture in the Veterans Health Administration system has demonstrated the widespread acceptance of the value of this non-drug approach to managing pain and mitigating the need for opioid use,” stated the 2021 study “Pain and Opioid Use: Evidence for Integrating Acupuncture Into Treatment Planning,” by Elizabeth Sommers, Sivarama Prasad Vinjamury and Jennifer Noborikawa. 

A year ago, Krieger launched the Tuesday afternoon PTSD clinic where acupuncture doctoral students from Santa Monica-based Emperors College come to the West LA VA Medical Center campus to treat Veterans. From noon to 4 p.m., a large room in Building 220 becomes a soothing sanctuary complete with calming sounds, comfortable chairs and tables to lie on, and compassionate staff. 

Krieger has witnessed some incredible results during these clinics and in other settings at West LA VA Medical Center. Krieger and Dr. Thomas Blair, Deputy Chief of the emergency department (ED), collaborated to initiate a program where acupuncture is used in the ED. 

There, Krieger has seen patients endure kidney stones without pharmaceutical relief; regain the ability to breathe normally despite early heart failure; and deal with metastatic cancer pain after breaking through their opiates, he said – all thanks to the ancient practice.

“It’s safe, not painful and has a really good clinical result,” said Krieger. “It’s a great way of trying to help health problems and it’s healing and gentle on the body versus harsher treatment options like surgeries or medications.”

Jeremiah’s Journey

Krieger’s journey started at the age of seven when he began experiencing painful headaches and chronic sinus infections that required constant trips to the pediatrician. After trying everything Western medicine had to offer, his dad suggested acupuncture. 

Six weeks later, a regimen of Chinese herbs and treatments resolved five years of illness. From then on, Krieger was hooked. “The more I studied it the more I loved it,” said Krieger. “It’s a really beautiful and sophisticated medicine.” 

At the age of 16, he was accepted into Chinese medical school. His parents, however, insisted he continue his traditional education, and he went on to attend UCLA, before eventually going to Emperors College, graduating in 2003. He has a Doctorate of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM) as well as a Master of psychology.

Krieger went on to run a successful private practice for 17 years, but when a friend told him about an opening at VA, he felt called to apply. In his tenure he’s significantly expanded the reach of acupuncture, including through the PTSD clinic, which was recently featured on FOX 11 Los Angeles.

“If a Veteran knows you care and you’re giving them your best, they are the most grateful, loyal, awesome, and appreciative group of people I’ve ever worked with! It’s hugely rewarding,” said Krieger. “Good medicine mixed with kindness … that’s the stuff of miracles.”

Acupuncture’s Expansion

The PTSD clinic and the emergency department are just a couple of the ways acupuncture is being used. Friday’s walk-in battlefield acupuncture clinic for pain, held in Building 220 at the West LA VA Medical Center campus, is also well-attended by Veteran patients.

Dr. Beverly Haas, mental health lead for the Domiciliary (DOM) Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program at the West LA VA Medical Center, has seen the effects of acupuncture firsthand in the Veterans she works with. 

“They really like going there,” said Haas. “They always look forward to going back and they feel like it helps a lot with lowering their stress, lowering their anxiety, and also their pain.” In a letter she submitted to VA leadership, she reported that many of the Veterans describe the treatment as “a game-changer.” 

In 2008, Haas and some colleagues started a specific track for combat Veterans at the DOM, and many of her participants attend the PTSD clinic for treatments.

“It’s important to remember that with combat Veterans they can have all kinds of injuries, and not all are something that can be directly treated,” she said. “Anything that helps them feel good is just a tremendous accomplishment.”

Krieger’s clinic is booked out two months in advance. He hopes to see the use of acupuncture continue to expand throughout VAGLAHS, particularly in the realm of mental health. Acupuncture treatments are via consult so Veterans can ask their primary care provider for a referral. The acupuncture front desk can be reached at 310-268-3276.

Many Veterans report that acupuncture can seem intimidating at first. But keeping an open mind is key, said Theissen. “Really just listen to what they have to say.” 

“Give acupuncture a chance,” added Army Veteran and former infantryman Bradley Griffin, another attendee at the clinic. “It’s weird but it works. Try it for yourself first and then decide.”

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