More Valley war veterans are turning to alternative medicine to treat their battlefield ills.
Will Gray can finally sleep for the first time in 15 years. He says he’s happy again. And, he says, he’s hooked – not on drugs or pills, but needles. It’s acupuncture, and the treatments have helped the 52-year-old veteran overcome the sometimes-unbearable effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet this type of alternative medicine – aka, non-drug-based – is still met with a fair amount of skepticism and controversy from physicians and patients alike.
“I was hesitant when I first heard about it,” says the Phoenix vet, who served 21 years in the Marine Corps, including a stint in the Gulf War. “Honestly, I didn’t really think it would work. Once I tried it, I thought it was amazing.”
Gray sought treatment at the Phoenix Natural Medicine and Detox Center, a quaint clinic on Roosevelt Street near Downtown that feels more like a spa than a doctor’s office. Inside, jars of herbs line the shelves of an apothecary. A friendly woman blends kale, carrots and lemon behind the organic juice bar for “Immunity Rocket” smoothies. Fifteen or so therapists cycle through, offering everything from acupuncture and massage to moxa (a Chinese practice involving mugwort herb).
The National Institutes of Health estimate 7.7 million Americans are affected by PTSD, many of them veterans. For years, alternative therapies like acupuncture have been gaining attention for their effectiveness in treating PTSD. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon had an “experimental unit” that was using such approaches to treat PTSD, and that it was “getting some serious results.”
The Roosevelt clinic isn’t alone in treating local PTSD patients. The Aletris Center of Integrative Medicine, a naturopathic clinic in Scottsdale, also reports a spike in visits from veterans. In fact, clinic manager Calie Conner suffered from PTSD herself before seeking out alternative treatments like colon hydrotherapy and hormone balancing. “It’s more than just a mental situation,” the 25-year-old says of PTSD. “It becomes a physical condition.”
Gray first tried prescription medications for his near-constant insomnia, chronic fatigue and pain, the result of both PTSD and fibromyalgia. Doctors put him on a heavy dose of Vicodin, but Gray says, “I don’t like taking drugs. They made me sick.” He found relief in a combination of acupuncture, meditation and herbs, and refers other vets to follow suit.
Frances Elorriaga is a 61-year-old veteran Army nurse. She suffered from PTSD and pain in her knees. “My doctor put me on some anxiety medicine, but it was too strong. I felt drowsy. I didn’t feel right.” She visited Chinese medicine practitioner Aeimee Diaz for acupuncture twice a month and soon said goodbye to her pills. “I just felt better. I moved better. I don’t have the pain that I had before.”
Tricare, the military’s healthcare plan, does not yet cover most alternative therapies – including the $65 acupuncture sessions offered by Diaz. However, Karen Kattar, PTSD clinic director for the Phoenix VA Health Care System, says more than 80 percent of V.A. facilities in the U.S. provide alternative medicine options along with conventional treatments. “There really isn’t a vast amount of scientific evidence to show that complementary and alternative medicine is as effective as we would love to see to have widespread recommendations for it,” Kattar says.
Still, the number of veterans visiting the year-old Roosevelt clinic is “off the charts,” says owner Gayle Palms, and they’re mostly in their 30s and 40s. But she knows alternative medicine isn’t yet widely accepted: “It’s not mainstream. It took a long time for the medical society to let acupuncture into the hospitals, and it’s been around for 5,000 years. We’re trying to teach people as we go.”
PTSD in Numbers
30: Percent of 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at V.A.
hospitals since 9/11 who received a PTSD diagnosis, according to a 2012 report from the Department of
9 to 24: Estimated percentage of PTSD among Persian Gulf War (1991) veterans.
35: Percentage increase of veterans who sought mental health services from the V.A. between 2007 and 2012.
39: Percentage increase in mental health care spending by the V.A.
between 2009 and 2012.
1 million: Estimated number of PTSD diagnoses among Vietnam War veterans, which constitutes 30 percent of total combat troops.