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4 Alternative Medicine Treatments that Confound Skeptics

From acupuncture to tai chi, it's time to try something different

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Chronic back pain plagues many veterans, often caused by carrying heavy loads and service-related injuries. While pain medication can provide much-needed relief from intense discomfort, addiction led to the nation’s grave opioid crisis. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has successfully restricted opioid use in the health care system by 64 percent, in part by introducing alternative pain-management treatments, including acupuncture and tai chi.

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Some of these treatments might be mocked as New Age fake. In fact, they include therapies with a long history of documented benefits in Asian cultures. Here are four time-tested alternative pain management treatments that the VA offers:

Acupuncture

Drawn from traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves tiny needles being inserted into the skin. It has been offered as part of the veterans’ medical benefits package since 2017. A review of 22 studies has found that acupuncture provides short-term relief from chronic back pain, while other research revealed that acupuncture was more effective than analgesic injection in reducing pain.“Those with chronic pain who have acupuncture use a lower amount of pain medication,” Juli Olson, national lead for acupuncture in the Veterans Health Administration and an acupuncturist in the Pain Clinic at Central Iowa VA medical center, told AARP Veteran Report. Acupuncture reduces inflammation, bringing blood flow to the problem areas. For old injuries, acupuncture helps calm persistent pain signals that travel from the wounded area to the brain. Your primary doctor at the VA can prescribe a set of acupuncture treatments at the medical center or an affiliated provider.

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Acupressure

Acupressure is the application of pressure on specific points of the body, ranging from the temple all the way down to the toes. The practice, also from Chinese medicine, is similar to acupuncture but involves fingertips rather than needles. Pressure on select points of the body helps the circulation of blood and vital energy known as “qi.” In a 2021 study, researchers found that acupressure provided relief to lower back pains and was more effective than physical therapy in pain reduction. The Veterans Health Administration’s YouTube channel has videos of acupressure techniques for alleviating lower back pain, headaches, neck pain, and sleep with a pinch of the fingers.

Tai Chi

Like yoga, tai chi focuses on breathing techniques, slow-paced flowing movement and stretches. It can be done while sitting, making it ideal for those with mobility challenges. According to a 2016 study, practicing tai chi for six weeks helped ease chronic pain caused by osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. Research has also found that tai chi enhances relaxation and improves flexibilityleg-muscle strengthbalance and mood. Here are some introductory tai chi movements.

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Mindfulness Meditation

To be mindful means to be fully present in the moment without distraction — it’s a state of being that takes practice. A 2016 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that mindfulness meditation could be more effective than standard treatments in relieving chronic lower back pain. More recent research illustrated that a person who practiced mindfulness did not feel as much intensity or unpleasantness in pain. To start, download the Mindfulness Coach app, a free meditation program developed by the VA to guide veterans through 12 exercises. The steps are simple: Set aside some time (1–13 minutes), find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and pay attention to your body and senses while listening to the soothing prompts.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Rachel Ng is an award-winning writer and editor based in Hawaii. She’s a frequent contributor to National GeographicOutside magazine, and various AAA publications. She loves history, the board game Risk, and all things chicken.

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