COLORADO SPRINGS – The right prescription for veterans and active duty service members, may not be a prescription at all. Alternative treatments, like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, electrotherapy and chiropractic work are proving extremely helpful for military men and women suffering from an array issues.
It’s a shift taking place inside and outside of Veterans Affairs health clinics in Colorado.
Veteran Jason Smiley is an instructor in Colorado Springs with the Veterans Yoga Project. Every week, he and other vets meet at Hot On Yoga for a free class, designed specifically with veterans in mind. The yoga is restorative and Smiley leads the class through guided meditation.
“They understand that you’ve been through the same things they’ve been through,” said Smiley.
The vets share a common ground, going through war, deployments and service to their country. That service can come with a price, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical injuries and chronic pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
“I don’t sleep very well,” said Coast Guard veteran Tom Noomen. “The thing that really helps for me is that this is totally to relax and get well, and it’s not a push to the limit kind of thing which a lot of times you do experience in the military and sometimes pushing over the limit.”
Noomen is one of many vets who finds a kind of healing he’s never experienced before on his yoga mat.
“The guided meditation is the most restful sleep I experience. I wake up after those and I feel like I’ve slept for weeks,” said Noomen.
Noomen was wary of the veterans yoga class at first, but now says he looks forward to it every week.
“I haven’t experienced any negative side effects from yoga and guided meditation whereas with medication in the past I’ve had some pretty severe side effects,” said Noomen.
Prescription medication has been the go-to treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs for decades. But recently, the Va’s health system has tried to make a change.
“I think the VA is trying to do what patients need and to meet them at their level of need, not just say here we’re going to give you a pill,” said Lynne Prouhet, nurse practitioner and yoga instructor at the VA clinic in Colorado Springs.
The VA has had a wake up call in recent years when it comes to prescription drugs, reporting that opioid use nearly tripled in the VA health system over the past decade. Vets describe getting thousands of prescription drugs from the VA to treat any number of problems, not just pain.
A study published in 2011 found that vets are dying from narcotic overdoses at twice the rate of the national average. And that same year the Centers for Disease Control named prescription drug abuse a national epidemic.
“Emotional pain and physical pain are really processed in the same place in the brain,” said VA clinical psychologist, Steven Kidd. “That’s how opioids become addictive, I’m not just treating my physical pain, I’m treating my emotional pain and I need more to get the same effect.”
Kidd is also the Substance Abuse Treatment Program Manager at the Colorado Springs VA clinic. In a search for new treatments that address both the patient’s mind and body, he’s started using a new device that uses an electronic signal.
It’s called Alpha Stim, and can offer relief for chronic pain, as well as treat PTSD symptoms like anxiety, depression and insomnia.
“It’s a subtle effect,” he explained. “It just has this gentle calming impact and vets go wow, this is really helpful.”
If the Alpha Stim device proves helpful in the clinic, vets can get the device shipped to their homes so they can relieve their pain or anxiety whenever they need it.
Electrotherapy is just one of several options at the VA clinic now. Vets can also take a 10 week yoga and meditation program at the Colorado Springs clinic.
“And the meditation has been amazing for people to feel calmer,” said Prouhet.
It’s a new direction for a health care system that has relied so heavily on prescription drugs in the past.
“It’s definitely a shift for the VA,” added Prouhet.
Smiley with the Veterans Yoga Project said he hopes to see more opportunities like this for vets in Southern Colorado, and is glad the VA is finally offering yoga, a therapy that’s been around for thousands of years.
“Maybe they’re starting to see that throwing medication at somebody is not effective,” said Smiley.
Also in the past few years, the VA and Fort Carson have added acupuncture to its list of options for vets.
But acupuncturists have known for years that the needles can have huge benefits for active duty and vets. In 2006, Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) started the Military Stress Recovery Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“It helps the body to relax and calm the mind and then the healing can start,” said Carol Penno, licensed acupuncturist.
Penno started the Colorado Springs Acupuncture for Veterans Project, and offers free auricular acupuncture to vets, active duty military and their families. VFW No. 101 on Tejon allows Penno and the vets to use the upstairs ballroom every Wednesday night for the acupuncture sessions.
“It’s extremely beneficial, it’s hard to explain it until you’ve done it,” said Army veteran Elizabeth David.
David comes every week, and looks forward to the prick of the needles. She suffered injuries years ago while active duty, leaving her with chronic knee and back pain, and the anxiety that goes along with those injuries.
David said after years of taking excessive amounts of over the county pain medication, she had reached her limit.
“I was tired of the pills,” said David.
Since starting acupuncture on a regular basis through the Acupuncture for Veterans Project, she said she has gained her life back and is drug free.
“The thing about being drug free is it gives me a sense of self sufficiency, and the thing the military teaches all of us is to be self sufficient,” said David.