''Battlefield acupuncture'', developed by air force physician, Colonel Richard Niemtzow, is helping heal soldiers with concussions.
Commander Keith Stuessi asks his patients to relax in his darkened chamber and then gently inserts hair-thin needles. He uses acupuncture to treat concussions, also known as mild brain trauma. ''I'm seeing incredible results,'' said Commander Stuessi. ''In my heart I think this will, become one of the standards of care.''
Homemade bombs called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the leading killer of coalition soldiers in the Afghan war. A concussion is caused by the pressure wave travelling through the brain, without anything necessarily hitting the head.
Some are knocked unconscious and ruptured eardrums are common. 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, Commander Stuessi said.
Gunnery Sergeant Williams, 36, was 10 days in from a concussion he received in Musa Qala, in the north of Helmand, when he arrived in Commander Stuessi's office. Climbing down off a roof during a mission to set up a new patrol base, a soldier one metre 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, but he was otherwise unhurt. Others realised something was wrong when he started talking nonsense, and he was airlifted to a hospital.
Commander Stuessi suggested he try acupuncture. ''I was willing to try anything to get back [to duty],'' Sergeant Williams said. ''That night, I slept for about 10 hours, and when I woke, the headache wasn't as severe.''
Sergeant Williams has had four sessions and is sleeping well. Sleep is the most important cure for concussion.
But Commander Stuessi isn't alone in using it in the US military. The navy alone has now trained about 50 doctors in acupuncture, he said. The air force, for instance, uses the technique to dampen the pain on the long flights for evacuating wounded soldiers back to the US.
Commander Stuessi thought it worked by adjusting the ''neural pathways'' in the body. ''It's like rewiring a computer; you're hitting certain nerves in the body. So instead of sending up a pain signal to the brain, they send up a signal saying everything's OK. It's almost like faking out the brain.''
The National Institutes of Health is examining acupuncture as a means of speeding recovery for soldiers. Last week in Washington, Defence Department personnel met researchers and members of the Institutes of Health's National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to discuss the military's continued exploration of acupuncture.