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'The Warrior Pose': Army considers yoga to treat Soldiers' pain

Sep 3, 2010
Lisa R. Rhodes

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  • Yoga classes have been said soothe and relax
'The Warrior Pose': Army considers yoga to treat Soldiers' pain

Photo credit Lisa R. Rhodes

Lt. Col. Michele Spencer, 48th Combat Support Hospital, (center, blue top) leads a free yoga class at Gaffney Fitness Center. The Army Surgeon General is considering yoga and other alternative therapies such as biofeedback, acupuncture and meditation to help treat Soldiers with acute and chronic pain.

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FORT MEADE, Md. -- Sgt. 1st Class Felicie Spencer takes medication for the pain she experiences from an injury.

But for a few months this spring, Spencer attended yoga classes at Gaffney Fitness Center. A member of Fort Meade's Warrior Transition Unit at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, Spencer said the practice soothed her discomfort.

"It eases the joints where there is pain," she said. "It's excellent. Sometimes I don't want to leave, I'm so comfortable."

If Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker has his way, yoga and other alternative therapies would be integrated into Army medicine to treat the pain of wounded Soldiers.

In May, the Army Surgeon General's Office released the Army Pain Management Task Force's final report. The task force, initiated by Schoomaker, made recommendations for a comprehensive pain-management strategy that is holistic, multidisciplinary and multimodal in its approach to treating Soldiers and other patients with acute and chronic pain.

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According to an Army website, Schoomaker said at a June press conference that the increasing numbers of Soldiers returning from combat with severe wounds, and reports of medication abuse and suicides with pain as an aggravating factor, are troubling.

To improve the quality of life for wounded Soldiers, the general said he is supportive of alternative therapies. "Programs such as biofeeback and yoga have been subjected to scientific randomized trials and have been proven to be effective," Schoomaker said.

The task force report states that the military health system's care for wounded warriors is "rooted in a military culture that praises selflessness, toughness and willingness to accept pain." As a result, a "no pain, no gain" philosophy has been embraced by the military and "often causes delays in treatment" as servicemembers "attempt to work through their pain and 'tough it out.'"

A major problem discovered by the task force is an "over-reliance on medications to treat pain" and the "increased prevalence of prescription abuse" among Americans in general.

To tackle these obstacles, the report recommends the use of integrative and alternative therapeutic modalities such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation and biofeedback in a patient-centered plan of care.

Dr. William Swann, chief primary care manager at Fort Meade's WTU, said he applauds the Army's consideration of alternative therapies for Soldiers.

"I think it's a good idea," said Swann, an osteopath who is a certified Tai Chi instructor and has been trained in Qigong, mindfulness meditation and HeartMath, a stress-reduction management program.

Swann said he often recommends alternative therapies such as yoga and biofeedback for WTU Soldiers.

The goal of combining alternative therapies with traditional medicine should be to allow Soldiers "to take ownership of and be involved in their own healing from this mind-body perspective," Swann said.

Kimbrough is already using biofeedback for stress management and physical ailments, said Swann.

Dr. Stacey Ketchman, a supervisory psychologist in the behavioral health department at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the department has successfully used biofeedback to treat pain in Soldiers for two years.

"We wanted to provide another way of treating pain that did not involve medication or invasive procedures," Ketchman said, noting that the over-reliance on pain medication is often not a solution to chronic pain, but only treats its symptoms.

The department's newly expanded Complementary Alternative Medicine Clinic offers biofeedback and hypnosis to treat a wide range of ailments, including chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, insomnia and migraines.

"I was extremely excited when the report came out," Ketchman said.

According to the clinic's satisfaction surveys, results from Soldiers have been "extremely high."

Ketchman said she hopes the Army's embrace of alternative therapies will increase funding for the Fort Bragg clinic to hire additional staff such as an acupuncturist, occupational therapist and chiropractor.

Lt. Col. Michele Spencer, S-3 operations and training officer for the 48th Combat Support Hospital, and Pamela Phillips, the Financial Readiness Program manager at Army Community Service, both teach yoga at Gaffney.

"To make [alternative therapy] mainstream, that's the exciting part," said Spencer, who also has taught power Vinyasa yoga to Soldiers when she was stationed in the international zone in central Baghdad in 2006.

"We were being bombed every day," she said. "The energy [there] was very dark, but what great light it was to have such a peaceful practice."

Spencer said that by the end of every class, she observed less stress in students' faces and bodies. Each was "a different person," she said. "Their breath was even more focused and soft."

Results are similar for participants at Gaffney's free yoga classes.

"The poses and the breathing," Phillips said, "do wonders for the psyche."

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