joseph helms md

Photo courtesy of Joseph Helms, MD

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Joseph Helms, MD

The Opioid Fighter

When Joseph Helms, MD, founding president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, met Sergeant Jeff Livingood at an acupuncture training session in 2011, he was dismayed by the Marine's injuries. While on patrol in Iraq in 2004, Livingood's armored vehicle had plunged into an IED crater, crushing his wrists and right forearm. Seven years and 11 surgeries later, he could still barely move his hands and suffered from pain, depression, and insomnia.

Over the course of his treatment, Livingood had received eight prescriptions, including three for opioids. This wasn't unusual: Prescriptions for pain relievers written by military physicians quadrupled between 2001 and 2009, to almost 3.8 million. In a 2014 study, 15 percent of surveyed combat soldiers had used opioids in the last month—triple the rate reported by the general public. Yet, while highly addictive, opioids may be ineffective for chronic pain. That's where acupuncture comes in.

After just one session with Helms's team, Livingood slept better than he had since he was injured; six months later, he was able to empty the dishwasher and fold laundry. Most striking, he was off the opioids.

Since 2010, the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense have encouraged their doctors to educate patients about acupuncture as an alternative to opioids. But even though peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown acupuncture can successfully treat various medical problems, few doctors are qualified to offer it. So in 2014, Helms started the Acus Foundation, a nonprofit that trains military doctors in acupuncture. The group established a program at Nevada's Nellis Air Force base that, in three years, has trained more than 100 physicians, including 25 doctors stationed at Nellis who have performed 8,000-plus acupuncture treatments. After the first year, opioid prescriptions on the base dropped by 45 percent in patients who received at least four treatments.

The program is now training physicians from military bases in California, Illinois, Nebraska, and Florida, with more on the way. "Our goal is for every service member and veteran going into a primary care clinic to have the acupuncture option," says Helms. As for Livingood, he still gets pricked a few times a year. He's retired from the military and has much more control of his hands—enough to help care for not only his three children, but also the 60 chickens he and his wife raise to supply organic eggs to local chefs.

—Cara Tabachnick