New Approaches to Treating Battlefield Injuries

ByABC News
May 11, 2005, 2:17 PM

May 11, 2005 — -- More than 12,000 soldiers have been injured in Iraq, with better body armor protecting the head and vital organs and improved transport allowing more of the wounded to survive.

But those who do often are in horrendous pain. Doctors who treat the wounded in Iraq call this a war on human limbs, with injuries to skin and muscle that are among the most painful known to medicine.

"I think it's kind of like a living hell," said Staff Sgt. Chris Cook. "I mean, you're constantly your pain takes up all of your thoughts."

To relieve that hell, Dr. Trip Buckenmaier's team at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is pioneering a technique that is changing battlefield medicine.

"We're thinking about pain in the military like I don't believe military officials have ever thought about pain," Buckenmaier said.

Sgt. Tanner Hoag nearly lost his arm to a roadside bomb. In previous wars, his pain would probably have been numbed by morphine, an addictive narcotic. But Buckenmaier used an electric probe to pinpoint the exact nerve that transmits pain from the wound.

He then injected the nerve with a constant flow of non-addictive medicine called regional anesthesia.

"Right now I feel it kicking in," Hoag said after the injection. "My fingers are going numb and eventually, and in the past it would just fall and I would have to pick it up and put it on my lap."

Buckenmaier and his colleagues have been training other doctors in the technique. He spent three months in Iraq treating soldiers hours after they were injured -- reducing their pain to almost zero.

"From the compassionate standpoint, we need to be doing this," he said. "Our soldiers deserve the best possible pain control we can give them."

What Buckenmaier has learned in the war zone could help anyone with pain. It has to do with how the brain interprets an injury.