Acupuncture for First Responders

Auricular acupuncture for stress relief. (Photo courtesy of author.)

By Dr. Nikki Kelly

When you hear the word acupuncture, what thoughts come to mind? You may imagine a very painful way of treating illness in which a poor soul is stuck with hundreds of needles in various parts of his body and face. You also could also be thinking, “Acupuncture? What the heck is that?” If thoughts like these come to mind, you are not alone. A lot of people share these feelings of skepticism and apprehension. Did you know that acupuncture has been an effective form of medical treatment for more than 5,000 years? Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have been used to effectively treat many “dis-eases.” This article will focus on using acupuncture as an integrative approach in the treatment of behavioral health and other concerns common to firefighters.1

Firefighter behavioral health has been on the forefront for several years, and things are starting to change as awareness rises about the importance of our mental health. As firefighters, taking care of our physical health is a crucial part of the job. Hours are spent conditioning our bodies to be strong and in the best shape possible to be able to handle the physical aspect of the job. Why should the state of our mental health be any different? Eastern medicine and acupuncture treat both the mind and the body as a single unit. Caring for emotions and the physical body at the same time has been shown to lead to longer lasting and more beneficial treatment outcomes.


What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an effective form of medical treatment that has evolved into a complete holistic health care system. Practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese medicine have used this noninvasive treatment method to help millions of people become and stay well. Acupuncture needling promotes homeostasis and self- healing. In short, acupuncture stimulates the body’s own resources to heal itself. Western science has shown that acupuncture can suppress an overactive sympathetic nervous system by stimulating the release of oxytocin, which will disengage the body’s fight or flight response. Acupuncture also increases the parasympathetic nervous system and activate the body’s own internal healing ability. Acupuncture creates “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s ability to spontaneously heal injuries to the tissue through nervous, immune, and endocrine system activation. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries.

Acupuncture releases natural painkillers. Inserting a needle sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain, where chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine, and enkephalin are released.2


What Can Acupuncture Treat?

Acupuncture is recognized by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to be effective in the treatment of a wide variety of medical problems. Here are some health concerns common to firefighters that I have treated in my practice: addiction-alcohol, anger, drugs, smoking, anxiety, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue, depression, digestive trouble, emotional problems, headache, insomnia, joint pain, low back pain, nausea caused by chemotherapy, PTSD, sciatica, sleep disturbances, shoulder pain, and stress.3



With permission from one of my patients, here is his experience with acupuncture:

“I’ve struggled with PTSD for the past two years after the most horrific call of my fire service career. I was first on scene of a vehicle vs. pedestrian only to find that the pedestrian was my younger brother. He didn’t survive. In the weeks and months that followed, I sought out anything that would help me cope: psychotherapy, medications, group therapy, alcohol, and natural remedies. It was suggested to me to try acupuncture as another avenue of healing. I was willing to try anything after struggling to sleep and generally function for months. After consulting with Dr. Kelly, I had my first session. Because Dr. Kelly is a former firefighter, we had a lot of common ground and understanding of the job. I started feeling immediate results after my first session. I slept like a baby that night and started to feel better mentally and emotionally. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but in such a deep and dark hole I knew I needed to try something different. I’m doing better today and continue my acupuncture therapy on a regular basis. To my fellow first responders: We work a hard job and see horrible things every day. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Try different avenues to help clear your head. There’s no shame in seeking help. Acupuncture has helped me; maybe it can help you. But you won’t know until you take that first step.”4

Josh Vandegrift, Firefighter/Paramedic


How Does Acupuncture Fit into the Fire Service?

Firefighter behavioral health, along with cancer, is on the forefront of issues now being addressed in the fire service. This is where several of the firefighter life and safety initiatives come into play. The fire service has deep roots in tradition and conditioning. Change in our attitudes about alternative healing modalities will offer more possibilities for healing. For acupuncture to be accepted, we must be open to change. Our brothers and sisters are dying from the carcinogens and other products of combustion; and, sadly, the stressors and health risks involved in the job can sometimes lead to suicide.

National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiative #1 focuses on cultural change that can lead to an evolution in different treatment methods that can include acupuncture: “Culture is generally defined as the behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs that are shared within a group or organization. It reflects the collective perception of right and wrong, good and bad, or desirable and undesirable actions and characteristics. The safety culture within a fire department is reflected through its members’ behaviors, attitudes and actions in and out of the station as well as on the fire ground. The First Initiative asks us to explore the characteristics of our departments to bring about a higher commitment to safety.”

Life Safety Initiative #13 addresses making psychological support more accessible to firefighters and their families. Acupuncture can aid with this initiative, as it is a treatment option that is already widely known as an efficient method for many psychological problems and can have long lasting results. Acupuncture treatments can provide benefits to both firefighters and their departments over time as they can reduce the amount of money and resources necessary to treat physical, emotional, and psychological traumas incurred in the line of duty. Life Safety Initiative #13 “means that firefighters and EMS professionals and their families must have the resources to deal with the various complications that their jobs can bring to their lives, especially issues regarding emotional and psychological stress. They must also have help available to deal with the problems in living that all of us sometimes face, regardless of the work we do, especially regarding family, finances or even drug and alcohol issues. Health and safety standards (like the NFPA 1500 Standard on Firefighter Health and Safety) require that assistance programs be made available to ensure that such services are there when needed.”5

There are several ways that acupuncture can benefit the fire service as a form of treatment and a preventive method. The first way would be to incorporate acupuncture in firefighter recovery centers as an adjunct treatment to help speed recovery. The second way would be to offer acupuncture during a critical incident stress debriefing to get the body out of fight or flight mode and to reduce or prevent some of the side effects associated with a traumatic event. Research in the past decade has shown that acupuncture is a helpful somatic therapy that rebalances the brain after significant stress as well as the nervous and hormonal systems. Acupuncture treatment, especially shortly after exposure to traumatic events, can help prevent the development of post-traumatic stress (PTS). With more extended treatment, acupuncture can also restore resiliency for those who suffer from long-term PTS.6

Acupuncture is currently being used in addiction and treatment centers and has been used in the military for many years in pain management and treating PTSD. Acupuncturists in the VA now have a government standard (GS) range of GS 9 -12 and are being hired to treat veterans for pain and opioid addiction. Acupuncturists without borders have been deployed after traumatic community events and have given hundreds of thousands of treatments to civilians and the first responders involved.

Acupuncture has the potential to help all those who add it as part of self-care. It is a safe, effective, and drug-free therapy that can help with a wide variety of common ailments without the risk of negative side effects.



  1. “6 neuro-acupuncture, Scientific evidence of acupuncture revealed.” 2001 Cho, ZH., et al, p.128, 116.
  4. Vandegrift, J. (9/3/18) Personal communication.


Dr. Nikki Kelly, AP, DACM, is a former firefighter who started her service volunteering for two years with Winter Park (FL) Fire Rescue in the public education and fire prevention departments, where she won Volunteer of the Year in 2004. She was a career engineer/EMT for the Tavares (FL) Fire Department for six years, where she was awarded Firefighter of the Year in 2010. She was also the first ever recipient of the Mickel-Begg Memorial Scholarship Fund. Dr. Kelly has her Fire Officer I and Fire Officer II certifications and an AS in fire science. She initially discovered the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine 11 years ago after sustaining a back injury during a training exercise while on duty. She was treated with acupuncture and Chinese herbs and learned firsthand about the rapid pain relief and healing ability of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. After this positive experience, Dr. Kelly has dedicated her acupuncture career to helping first responders by using this remarkable medical system. Dr. Kelly has a master of science in traditional Oriental medicine and a doctorate of acupuncture and Chinese medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, CA. She has her Florida and California State license and is nationally certified through the NCCAOM with her diplomate of Oriental medicine. She has a part-time private practice, First Response Acupuncture, which is a nonprofit for first responders in Rockledge, Florida, where she specializes in the treatment of PTSD, insomnia, stress, anxiety, addiction, and pain management in first responders. She also works full time for Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue as an emergency vehicle dispatcher.

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