How acupuncture is being used to treat military veterans with symptoms of PTSD at a Norfolk clinic
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2018
More than 100 years since servicemen returned with shellshock from the battlefields of World War I, Nicky Barrell reports on how acupuncture is being used to treat veteran's post traumatic stresss
The British Journal of Psychiatry study by the University of London recently discovered that overall PTSD rates among current and ex serving military personnel had increased from 4% to 6% in the last ten years.
It found the increase in PTSD rates was mainly seen among ex-serving personnel who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with 17% reporting symptoms suggesting PTSD, compared to 6% of those deployed in a support role such as medical, logistics, signals and aircrew.
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As a young teenager dodging bullets and shells amidst the streets and bombed out buildings of Beirut, Naji Malak witnessed first hand the devastating impact of war.
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Now Naji is drawing on his experience of the Lebanese civil war to treat service personnel and veterans who return from war zones suffering post traumatic stress.
And the 63-year-old acupuncturist's knowledge and successful treatment of PTSD was last month recognised with a national Complementary Therapy Award in the category of Mental Health and Well Being.
Only months after Naji completed National Service at the age of 19, civil war broke out in Lebanon and many of his friends joined militias to protect their own families and neighbourhoods.
The street battles were intense and the daily bombing meant that day to day life was dominated by avoiding being shot or bombed. As a young man from the mountains Naji recognised the early symptoms of PTSD in his friends.
'War started and then the army split up and all hell broke loose in Lebanon as different militias set up – it was chaotic and there was a lot of killing. I lived in that environment for around two years but you just get on with it because you have to survive and when you are a teen you are excited by the danger and adrenaline rush. It is something to focus your energy on.'
'Some of my friends were fighting and started avoiding meeting up with friends. They became disassociated and weren't able to truly connect with other people.'
While visiting London as a tourist, Naji decided to stay and study acupuncture. On obtaining a Masters in this ancient Chinese practice, he went back and forth to Beirut treating friends and servicemen as well as prisoners of war. He opened a private practice in London before moving to Norwich 23 years ago.'
A fellow of the British Acupuncture Council Naji together with his wife Amanda decided to set up a charity to support service personnel called Stand Easy. The charity was inspired by a documentary ' Broken by Battle' showing a veteran who had filming himself moments before committing suicide.
Naji explains that PTSD symptoms include feeling disassociated, anxiety, nightmares, hallucinations, depression, suicidal thoughts, extreme hyper vigilant, inability to relax, anger and angry or violent outbursts, foggy headed, withdrawing from social interaction and feeling overwhelmed by sensory input.
'It highlighted to us the dire need for effective help in this area. It pointed out that more veterans were dying by their own hand than were killed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of hostilities' a shocking statistic.'
Naji started off treating two veterans and this number has now increased to 150. He is also determined to reframe the view of PTSD.
'It is not a mental illness. It's more like an 'overlay' caused by the stress of battle. Whilst the symptoms are expressed mentally and emotionally and at times physically . We have found by experience that when the trauma is lifted off the person is intact beneath it and rapidly returns to their old self again. Although popular at present I personally don't feel it's helpful for individuals to adopt the label anymore than it would be for someone shaken up by a car crash for example.'
'It is not a mental health illness. The stress of battle affects the body which then causes mental health issues. My job is trying to remove the trauma from the body.
'When we take the trauma out of the body the body starts reshuffling itself and readjusting itself.'
Healthwatch Norfolk, the consumer champion for health and social care, published the results of a 12-month study of 21 veterans from Norfolk each receiving six sessions of acupuncture at the clinic.
'Some 90% of the veterans observed before treatment displayed symptoms classified as severe PTSD, but not one of the same group were classified as having any PTSD at all following six weeks of treatment.
Some 90% of the veterans observed before treatment displayed symptoms so severe that they were classified as having PTSD, but not one of the same group were classified as having PTSD following six weeks of treatment.
'These improvements were remarkable, both in their own right and compared to previous research, providing good evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture as practised at Stand Easy. Additionally veterans seem to like it as with acupuncture there is no requirement to talk about the trauma in order to resolve it.'
Julian went to Naji for permanent migraines caused by a severe head injury and brain damage caused by bleeding following an operation. Following a 20 minute treatment Julian started to feel much better and now after about six weekly treatments his migraine are much less frequent and less severe.
Julian said to me 'I don't know myself. I have lost myself Naji and then there was a point when I knew he was back. He is just not an empty shell and the permanent pain in his head has gone.'
'The bottom line is that PTSD is viewed as a mental illness but service personnel don't like that label. They know how to operate and know how to plan and extremely loyal but they have experienced severe trauma in war so this is what we have to treat.'
The charity also treats veterans even if they don't have a formal diagnosis.
'We take the view that individuals know when they don't feel right and are welcome to ask for our help so we often refer to 'PTSD and similar symptoms' to keep it open. Many veterans fear if they get a formal diagnoses on their medical records that it may adversely affect their future career opportunities so may avoid seeking help for this reason.'
If you are a member of H.M. Armed Forces or previously served you are able to contact Stand Easy for a quick confidential assessment and free treatment please contact www.standeasy.org.uk 01603 666546
Julian Blampied says acupuncture helped his recovery from PTSD
Ex RAF serviceman Julian Blampied bowed his head as he marched along the streets of Norwich in the Remembrance Service parade in memory of a colleague killed by the IRA.
It was a poignant moment for the 57-year-old from Marsham who had been unable to attend the ceremony to pay his respects since suffering a brain haemorrhage 19 years ago.
Three months earlier the father of two had received acupuncture treatment from Naji for debilitating headaches and was already starting to feel the benefits.
The father of two had been stationed in the Falklands and in Cyprus where service personnel came under attack from terrorist groups including the IRA. He was also going through a divorce when he collapsed while training in the gym.
Scans revealed that he had suffered bleeding on the brain which caused paralysis on the left hand side of his body and resulted in several months in rehabilitation before going home to try resuming a normal life.
'I lost use of the left hand side of my body and the consultant told me I wouldn't walk and I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I told him I would walk out of there and I did because of my military determination.'
Julian says the acupuncture has helped reduce his panic attacks, severe headaches as well as healed the emotional impact of feeling totally lost - all symptoms of PTSD.
'After the first treatment I felt almost totally fixed after 19 years of hell. Before I just existed and now I am alive.'