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Calm after the storms

Judy Palladino relaxes with needles in her ears at the Veterans Acupuncture Care clinic in Framingham. Judy Palladino relaxes with needles in her ears at the Veterans Acupuncture Care clinic in Framingham. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / October 13, 2011

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T he room was dark and New Age music played softly as Sara Hallor worked: Five stainless steel needles were pushed gently into the outer ear. Six patients sat on chairs and sofas in the wood-paneled library at St Andrew’s Church in Framingham, their eyes closed.

All were veterans or relatives of veterans, hoping the acupuncture would help relieve stress, anxiety, and physical problems. Emilio DiBenedetto, a Vietnam War veteran from Danvers, is a regular.

“You have these wounds, physical and emotional, that need to be dealt with,’’ he said. “And Vietnam vets, they never dealt with that. They’re seeing now that it was a big mistake.’’

These Saturday morning sessions are part of a national program in which active military, veterans and their family members, as well as first responders, can get free acupuncture treatments each week.

The clinics were created by Acupuncturists Without Borders, a national group that formed after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The group provided free community acupuncture care to help survivors, as well as emergency personnel and other caregivers, cope with the stress and trauma of the disaster.

Next, the group decided to provide free acupuncture for veterans, especially those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. Locally, the clinics are offered in Framingham, Boston, and Worcester.

The numbers of people getting acupuncture each week is increasing, said Christine Lee, project leader for the Veterans Acupuncture Care clinic in Framingham. In the year the clinic opened, she said, volunteer acupuncturists saw about 350 patient visits. So far this year, the number has increased to about 775 visits. (The group doesn’t keep track of the number of individual patients who attend.)

The group asks patients to fill out follow-up surveys about the treatment, and many reported their moods were more even and they could concentrate better, she said. “They sleep better, they have less pain,’’ she said.

Which is precisely what proponents contend: that acupuncture, a 2,000-year-old treatment that began in China, can relieve anxiety and stress and help people sleep better. Acupuncturists at all Military Stress Recovery programs follow the same protocol: They insert five needles into each ear at locations that are believed to correspond to stress and anxiety, and different organs.

One of the local clients, R.A. Kather, 83, has trigeminal neuralgia, a painful nerve disorder that causes stabbing pains to the face. His wife recently moved into a nursing home, which has “shaken me up quite a bit,’’ he said.

So he drives to St. Andrew’s for his weekly sessions. “It helps me to relax a little bit,’’ he said.

Kather is a World War II veteran, though he quickly adds that he never saw combat. Instead, he taught at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, his home state.

Hallor, who has a private acupuncture practice in Belmont, volunteers at the Framingham clinic once or twice a month. She inserts the tiny needles into the ears of her clients, who then stay at the clinic for about half an hour before she removes the needles.

“The beauty of this treatment is just that’s it’s so simple,’’ she said. Patients remain clothed, since they receive needles in their ears. In community acupuncture sessions like these, patients sit together in one room.

DiBenedetto, the Vietnam War vet, knows well the difficulty of returning from a war and slipping back into civilian life. He now works with military families, helping them get services they need. He recommends that the troops and their families seek out alternative care, especially acupuncture.

DiBenedetto suffers from anxiety and depression, and acupuncture, he said, has helped more than traditional treatments, such as antianxiety drugs.

“It works a whole lot better for me than the clonazepam and other medicines. It helps with my mood. If I could get it done four or five days a week, I would.’’

And his fiancee, a two-time cancer survivor, started going with him to the clinic when she saw how acupuncture calmed DiBenedetto. Judy Palladino, also of Danvers, says the treatment helps counteract the emotional difficulties of her situation.

“There’s a lot of anxiety with cancer,’’ she said. “I think the acupuncture has helped alleviate a lot of that. I come out of here feeling very relaxed and calm, and it seems to carry over for quite a while.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at