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Leading from the Front – NMCB-5 the First Deployable Naval Unit to Perform Battlefield Auricular Acupuncture

Aug. 25, 2021 | By Petty Officer 1st Class Stephane Belcher, NMCB 5
The U.S. Navy Seabees with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 can now receive acupuncture treatments as part of battlefield auricular acupuncture (BFA). NMCB-5 is the first U.S. Navy deployable command to perform BFA.

Lt. Jeffrey Moy, NMCB-5’s medical officer, and several corpsmen at NMCB-5 can provide auricular acupuncture, which consists of inserting small gold needles in the ear to treat pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nausea, and addiction–such as tobacco cessation.

The acupuncture Moy performs is a type of augmenting therapy. He states he wouldn’t perform BFA if the medical team is unsure why someone was experiencing their symptoms, as to not mask any symptoms. However, BFA can be used in the field to ease the pain if the medical workup is ongoing.

“Let’s say someone is out in the field, and they sprained a knee or twisted an ankle,” said Moy. “And we’re unsure of whether or not there’s an ACL tear or things like that. We could do this and try to ease the pain, as long as we continue to work up their knee injury.”

With BFA, the medical team at NMCB-5 wants to hone in on one symptom at a time. When patients come in, they want to focus on the things that seem to be bothering them the most and use BFA as an adjunct treatment. Their goal is to get the patient’s pain scale down a few notches to help them function.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is turn down the volume of your pain or turn down the volume of your anxiety,” adds Moy. “We’re just trying to turn that knob a little bit. Some people will find out that this gets rid of it completely, but the goal is really to half it, or to get it down to a two out of ten when it comes to pain or inability to function.”

Why does BFA work for the battalion?

The reason why the ear works better for BFA is that in the field, the rest of the body is covered by uniform, protective gear, and troops are carrying packs.

“No one is going to put long needles in anybody when they’re getting ready for transport, but the ear on all troops and soldiers is readily available,” said Moy. And they’re so easy to put in while someone is getting ready for transport–this could be that adjunct therapy that could be helpful in addition to oral medication.”

Some of the benefits of acupuncture are that it works quickly and does not limit a troop’s duty status. At the same time, some medications used for pain, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse can be duty limiting. BFA is not. Patients can have the needles in while wearing a uniform, participating in physical fitness, and operating equipment. This adjunct treatment helps with the unit’s medical readiness.

“The really interesting thing is, when we all learned how to do this, we practiced on each other,” added Moy. “Some people felt things happen very, very quickly. They didn’t have to take medicine and wait 30 minutes for a potential medication to work. You almost get a very, very quick, very sudden release of adrenaline, almost.”

How does it work?

Regular acupuncture involves long needles, where the provider leaves them in for 20 minutes. With BFA, the needles are much smaller and shorter, and they’re left in for three to fourteen days.

The auricular acupuncture involves the ear, which contains a homunculus, just like the brain. Moy says it essentially works like a map. During embryonic development, we start with one cell, and it goes from two to four to eight, but cells that originate from another cell can be so distant when you’re born or when you start to develop an ear. So the cells on your ear are very connected to where they originated from, even now. They’re connected embryonically, so the spots correspond to the brain and to different internal organs.

“And this is where embryology gets really cool.” Said Moy. “Cells are very much connected, and they can communicate with the cells next to them. Essentially what the homunculus does is connect different parts of your body embryonically. Eastern medicine has been mapping these connections for centuries.”

The U.S. Navy Seabees with NMCB-5 are deployed, supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific by strengthening our network of allies and partners and providing general engineering and civil support to joint operational forces. Homeported out of Port Hueneme, California, NMCB-5 has 10 detail sites deployed throughout the U.S. and Indo-Pacific area of operations.