After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, managers at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York asked the nearby Lincoln Recovery Center to provide respite and ear acupuncture treatment for staff and first responders impacted by the tragedy. Some of those treated reported that after treatment they slept better than they had in days or weeks.
Lincoln Recovery had developed an ear acupuncture treatment called the NADA protocol to assist substance abuse detoxification and recovery support in concert with other behavioral health interventions. The successful use of this technique for behavioral health support in the aftermath of September 11 inspired much of its use since then to ease tension and improve behavioral health after major disasters.
The benefits of acupuncture have long been accepted in eastern medicine and continue to be discovered and studied in western medicine. One of the strengths of acupuncture is believed to be the release of endorphins; in addition, the time spent in quiet relaxation during acupuncture can benefit blood pressure and calm the central nervous system’s response to stress, trauma, and pain. Acupuncture resources, knowledge, and expertise are still growing in the disaster response community and within the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) network of almost 200,000 volunteers.
In 2008, an acupuncturist in Santa Barbara, California, experienced the terror of being trapped in a local wildfire and that traumatic event prompted her to volunteer her skills in her community afterwards with her local Medical Reserve Corps unit.
Not long after, in Oregon, the State Department of Health made efforts to standardize roles for acupuncturists in a disaster and to register acupuncturists in their state Emergency System for Advanced Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals (ESAR-VHP).
Around the same time, an MRC leader and member of the National Disaster Medical System’s New Mexico Disaster Medical Assistance Team began teaching a specific acupuncture protocol to high school students on the Native American Reservation of Jemez Pueblo as part of community resiliency and wellness efforts. Today, efforts are underway to form a statewide Integrative Wellness MRC in New Mexico that not only could provide disaster support but also could provide services to veterans managing PTSD and addiction.
After a catastrophic flood in Boulder County, Colorado, in 2013, a local psychiatric nurse and acupuncturist founded the first MRC unit specializing in acupuncture, the Colorado Acupuncture MRC (CAMRC). Local emergency management officials requested stress relief for the staff at the Emergency Operations Center, and that request grew into a larger mission to help the thousands of local residents and first responders receive acupuncture treatments in the first six weeks after the event. CAMRC continued to offer support with smaller community clinics for two years.
In 2015, CAMRC responded to the recovery efforts after the Colorado Springs shooter incident. These MRC volunteers supported the community and first responders at the Disaster Assistance Center and were requested to return the following week for a private clinic for the first responder community. The goal in providing the acupuncture treatment was to foster and restore the resilience and independence of people affected by the tragic incident so that they could rebuild their lives and communities.
Since then, the CAMRC has responded to multiple fires supporting incident command personnel in staging areas and staff and residents in disaster assistance centers, and the CAMRC continues to provide recovery care in fire houses and community centers in Colorado. The team even supported an acupuncture response team in Orlando, Florida, after the Pulse active shooter incident in 2016.
The CAMRC also has been instrumental in developing an Acupuncture Mission Ready Package (MRP), which describes the mission and capabilities of acupuncture services post-disaster. The MRP can be utilized across the United States and integrates within FEMA’s National Disaster Framework. This package describes the role, training, and supplies needed to provide treatment in a disaster setting and outlines its benefits:
Auricular (ear) acupuncture is low cost and does not require participants to speak or share their experiences.
- The treatment can be given in any setting; supplies are mobile and can be kept on the practitioner.
- Auricular acupuncture protocols can be used for pain, behavioral health, psycho-social conditions, digestion, sleep, traumatic stress and more.
- Treatments are geared toward supporting resiliency in communities, aiding emergency responders and community members affected by disasters/critical incidents and traumatic events.
The CAMRC continues to educate emergency planners on the use of acupuncture after a disaster for both responders and survivors. They received an MRC NACCHO Challenge Award to conduct research and collect evidence supporting acupuncture in the MRC network to relieve symptoms of stress due to a life-event or events. CAMRC has partnered with the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Psychology Department Clinical Assessment of Injury, Recovery and Resilience (CAIRR) Neuroscience Lab to evaluate the findings. This data will be released in the fall in an effort to foster the development of additional acupuncture MRC units across the United States.
In other parts of the country, MRC units are incorporating acupuncture into their own response and recovery efforts as well. In Texas, for example, an MRC unit began developing acupuncture capabilities following severe flooding in 2015 and 2016. These efforts led to the development of ear acupressure guidance, inspired by an acupuncturist and MRC in Texas and developed by NADA leadership that can be used in the absence of an acupuncturist or until one can be found. Most recently, the Nassau County MRC in New York began to train members in providing treatment in a disaster setting, inspired after experiencing the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
This article was co-authored by Stacy Sayre, Region 8 Medical Reserve Corps Liaison and Rachelle Lambert, Licensed Acupuncturist and Unit Coordinator, Colorado Acupuncture Medical Reserve Corps