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Health Blog

Treating PTSD with Acupuncture in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Dana Carruth - Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The experience of Hurricane Sandy taught me a number of things. One, we never really know what is going to happen until it does. Two, continue to be full of love and gratitude for the people in our lives and how fortunate we are. Three, there are not many outlets for expressing and processing loss and grief within our culture. And four, the acupuncture and Chinese medicine profession has a lot to offer people suffering in the wake of natural disasters, especially with regards to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


 Hurricane Sandy was a slow moving, gigantic, level 1 hurricane. Before making landfall, it was believed that when the storm hit the east coast, it would collide with a cold front moving east from the west, that would drive the storm north through central Pennsylvania and New York. People here in Upstate New York were preparing for a 'stormaggedon', or at least for potential hurricane Irene-like conditions: emptying shelves at the stores of batteries, candles, water and generators; waiting on lines seven cars deep to fill up their car's gas tanks and preparing for storm driving conditions by driving poorly just because one heard on the news a storm was coming.


When Hurricane Sandy hit land just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the storm did never turned north, but continued west into the heartland. During the storm, reports from family and friends in New York City and New Jersey were that it was windy, there was some rain and power was going out in some areas. It wasn't until the following morning and into the next day that the damage sustained in many areas along the northern eastern coast, and to family members and friends became clear. It was overwhelming to see the the fire that destroyed nearly 100 homes on Breezy Point, Queens where my sister’s mother in law lives. And later that evening to see the destruction to the New Jersey Shore coast where my older sister lives, my grandmother owns the only house she has ever owned, and my family and I have spent a portion of our summers since I was born . Friends loosing their cars and having to vacate their apartments due to the flooding. 


In the days after the hurricane I felt anxious, worried and exhausted, and my daily life routine was not even affected by the storm in the slightest. I felt helpless and depressed by the worry and the loss. One morning, getting up to make coffee after having only slept for a few hours, I was acutely aware of my grief and sadness. I first felt bad that my emotions might somehow inconvenience or be off putting to people I would be working with all day. It made me think about our culture's level of acceptance for creating and having space in our lives to be open about and have the ability to process our sadness, depression and grief in a appropriate and healthy way. I wondered if not having room for this socially, was the impetus for our anti-anxiety and anti-depression  pharmaceutical culture in dealing with these distresses. I then decided two things: I would be open and honest with people in a professional way about how I was feeling if they asked, and I wanted to find a way to volunteer and do something in the aftermath of the storm to help those adversely affected and transform my feelings from helplessness to helpful. What happened, happened and it was time to move forward.


I traveled to New York City a week and a half  later, and again two weeks after that to volunteer with the organization Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) at Yoga on the Rocks in Rockaway, Queens. AWB was formed in September 2005 immediately after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It's original purpose was to provide free community acupuncture treatments to survivors of the hurricanes in Louisiana, including those evacuated, residents, first responders, emergency personnel, volunteers and other care providers. AWB continues to work successfully with mental health organizations, free medical clinics, homeless shelters, firefighters, police, the military and other recovery groups to provide free acupuncture treatments to those suffering from PTSD for a variety of reasons.


 Acupuncture has been continually used and studied by the profession of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, medical research teams and the U.S. Military as an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD has become a common topic of conversation, mostly in relation to veterans of war, as our service men and women have been negatively affected in the long years of war in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. But many life events can in fact cause PTSD. In addition to military combat, PTSD may be caused by violent personal assault, a terrorist attack, medical errors, automobile or other types of accidents, as well as manmade or natural disasters.


According to the American Psychiatric Association, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as outlined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) states that a person must have a history of exposure to a traumatic event meeting two criteria (Criterion A) and symptoms from each of the three symptom clusters (Criterion B). 

Criterion A indicates a stressor in which a person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which they have one, experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. Two, the person's response involves intense fear, helplessness, or horror and in children it may be expressed instead by disorganized agitated behavior. Criterion B includes a number of symptom clusters including: intrusive recollections, avoidant/numbing symptoms and hyper-arousal symptoms.


In general, the signs and symptoms of PTSD include headaches, depression, various types of body pain, insomnia, memory and concentration problems, difficulty maintaining close relationships, irritability, self-destructive behavior and being easily frightened. 

A characteristic that often differentiates Western and Eastern medicines, is that Western medicine separates psycho-emotional signs and symptoms from physiological ones. Understanding the internal organ systems as having physical-mental-emotional correspondence is a very important aspect of Chinese medicine. Physical body, mind and emotions are integrated into an interacting holistic system that are not separated into their individual parts and they relate with one another on multiple levels. This has been one of the major differences between Chinese medicine and Western bio-medicine. This relationship is also changing, the distance between Chinese and Western medicine, as Western medicine begins to understand the connectedness of the body and mind with the development of psychosomatic theory in the 20th century.


“Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been used to treat mental illness since 1100 BC, yet there are no extant clinical research models in contemporary psychiartry for using acupuncture to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Hollifield, 2007) 

In an effort to develop a clinical model for treating PTSD with acupuncture and Chinese medicine, Michael Holifield and team through the University of New Mexico, configured an initial clinical trial and published their findings. The article, Acupuncture for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial, “had two aims: (1) to develop a TCM-acupuncture diagnostic and treatment protocol for PTSD, and (2) to evaluate the potential efficacy of acupuncture for treating PTSD in a randomized controlled trial (RCT).” (Hollifield, 2007)  This controlled trial is remarkable for a number of reasons, but importantly in understanding the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture treatments as performed in a real-world treatment scenario.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine clinical practice, in addition to the condition being treated, the practitioner also addresses the overall constitution of the patient. In this way, Chinese medicine addresses the branch and the root of the patient. The branch referring to the signs and symptoms that caused the patient to seek out treatment, and the root being the overall constitutional imbalances that could be the underlying causes to the patient’s condition. Hollifield’s study was designed to include a standard set of acupuncture points that were used on all patients receiving treatment for PTSD, combined with a few varying points for each patient depending on individual patient signs and symptoms or overall constitution.


Overall, the randomized controlled pilot trial indicated that acupuncture may be an effective method of treatment to reduce signs and symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, depression and overall impairment. In addition to treatments being effective for patients while going through their course of treatment,the effectiveness of the treatments lasted three months after the end of treatment for some of the trial's participants. Acupuncture continues to be studied as an effective treatment for PTSD within the research, medical and military communities as the treatment option moves towards being a regularly recommended modality of care for PTSD.


My travels to Rockaway were both devastating and uplifting. It was pretty horrible observing the loss to infrastructure that took place, the displacement caused and understanding that recovery was going to take a very long time. I could not believe the destruction, the refuse and some of the smells when walking around putting up posters and talking to folks in the street about the acupuncture clinic at Yoga on the Rocks. There were moments I felt like I could have been in a third world country. On the other hand, I was inspired by the residents, the number of relief workers and volunteers, as well as their spirit for helping one another and a determination to get things turned around. I met a number of FEMA workers who were working tirelessly to assess the damage done to people's properties, volunteers who were helping to move waste indoors and out, and provide food through many donations and temporary food kitchens, utility service workers who traveled from states away to help recover service infrastructure and residents of the area who seemed to be both overwhelmed by the destruction of the storm and kindness of the greater community who were coming together to help. It was pretty inspiring.


Volunteering at Yoga on the Rocks for a couple of weekends during the month of November was a fantastic experience. Not only was it incredibly fulfilling to be able to volunteer and help people, but I also met a ton of amazing people. Michelle LaDue, through Acupuncturists Without Borders and Lena Roca, owner of Yoga on the Rocks founded the free acupuncture and massage clinic. The clinic’s purpose is to serve and support those affected by Hurricane Sandy, relief workers and volunteers with acupuncture and massage therapies. From day one, the clinic proved to be a success in providing an aesthetically pleasing and comfortable pace for people to visit.  At Yoga on the Rocks, away from the stress and constant reminder of the destruction from the storm and the work that will need to take place as a consequence of the storm,  people are able to receive treatment and at the very least experience the deeply relaxing effects of acupuncture and massage. It was really gratifying to hear people say things like “I haven’t felt so relaxed in over a month.” As were the words of one gentleman who came into the clinic with his wife and two sons, all of whom received treatments.



Hollifield M, Sinclair-Lian N, Warner TD, Hammerschlag R. Acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled pilot trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. 2007 Jun; 195 (6): pages 504-13.


The clinic at Yoga on the Rocks in Rockaway will continue to serve as a free clinic until January 13, 2013, at which point it will return to their regular yoga studio schedule.


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(607) 882-2531