Acupuncture should be part of every athlete's wellness routine. Many people overlook acupuncture as an option for athletic recovery and performance because they don't understand how it works. Acupuncture offers a natural alternative to pain relief while also addressing the underlying issues related to sports injuries and pain.
Here is a summary of what acupuncture is, what it can help with, and when athletes should use it as part of their recovery, injury prevention and sports performance routine.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin, single-use only needles into the body to improve health and well-being by relieving soft tissue constriction and activating parts of the brain that reduce pain and relax the nervous system.
Acupuncture is a part of Chinese medicine and has been around for thousands of years. It is most commonly used to treat pain and physical manifestations of stress. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine also include electroacupuncture, cupping, gua sha, moxibustion, infrared heat lamp therapy, herbal medicine, tai chi, qi gong and nutrition therapy.
What can acupuncture do?
- Acupuncture releases muscle tightness.
- Acupuncture reduces pain.
- Acupuncture reduces inflammation.
- Acupuncture promotes circulation.
- Acupuncture reduces stress/anxiety and improves focus.
Acupuncture releases muscle tightness
When muscles get tight they pull on their attaching structures which causes pain. These muscles become inhibited, and then other muscles need to compensate to make up for the lack of output in the tight muscle. Muscular injuries happen when a muscle is overworked or cannot manage the load that is being placed on it. By identifying areas of muscle constriction and releasing them, acupuncture can relieve pain and prevent future injury. Most muscular injuries occur because of overuse or functional imbalances that cause certain muscles to take on more load than they can handle.
Acupuncture can help relieve muscle tightness by identifying areas of muscle constriction and releasing them with an acupuncture needle. Trigger points are hyperirritable, tight bands of muscle that cause pain in predictable referral patterns. They are usually the result of overuse, poor posture or structural issues and can lead to more serious injuries because the affected muscles are in pain and cannot sustain their normal workload. Releasing trigger points with acupuncture returns a muscle closer to its normal length, and has been shown to be effective in reducing pain and increasing range of motion in the affected muscles.
Acupuncture reduces pain and reduces inflammation
Acupuncture is most well known for its ability to treat pain. The American Pain Society recommends the use of acupuncture for chronic pain, highlighting that, "Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal, headache and osteoarthritis pain. Treatment effects of acupuncture persist over time and cannot be explained solely in terms of placebo effects. Referral for a course of acupuncture treatment is a reasonable option for a patient with chronic pain."
Research from 2013 shows that acupuncture can reduce inflammation via several physiological pathways. These pathways include:
- The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates the body's response to stress via the release of cortisol and other hormones like glucocorticoids that play a role in inflammation.
- The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system which activates neurotransmitters that affect the inflammatory process.
- The antihistamine and cytokine process that occurs in allergic or autoimmune conditions.
When should athletes get acupuncture?
- After a game or workout to release muscle tightness and reduce soreness
- A couple days before a game to release any chronic or lingering tightness or to activate weak or inhibited muscles
- Before a game to activate any weak or inhibited muscles, reduce anxiety and improve focus
- Ongoing for any injuries or chronic pain. Acupuncture is generally recommended once or twice a week for 4-12 weeks for sports injuries. The frequency and duration depends on the injury and severity.
- Ongoing for injury prevention. For high level athletes, acupuncture should be a part of their ongoing wellness routine. Releasing any areas of constriction and muscle tightness before there is pain can help reduce the risk for injury by keeping muscles loose and activated.
Common sports injuries treated
- Low back pain
- Upper back and neck pain
- Hip pain
- Knee pain
- Shoulder pain
- Elbow and wrist pain
- Ankle and foot pain
- Muscle tightness and soreness
- Strains, sprains, and bruises
- Inflammation from acute injuries, tendonitis, and bursitis
- IT band syndrome
- Plantar fasciitis
- Tennis & golfer's elbow
- Sports hernia
- Post surgery recovery to reduce inflammation, promote circulation, and relieve muscle tightness
Who else is getting acupuncture?
NFL players: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/sports/football/30acupuncture.html
NHL players: https://www.sny.tv/rangers/news/henrik-lundqvist-needed-acupuncture-before-playing-yesterday/231713022
MLB players: https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=32011
Michael Phelps (cupping): https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/what-are-the-purple-dots-on-michael-phelps-cupping-has-an-olympic-moment/?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=8523F3635F6986C110D823E519A70679&gwt=pay&assetType=REGIWALL
Golf/Tennis elbow: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/12/sports/golf-acupuncture-needles-help-couples-seek-pins.html
How to find an acupuncturist
It is important that acupuncture is performed by a licensed Acupuncturist with the proper training. To look up nationally NCCAOM Board Certified acupuncturists and Oriental medicine practitioners please visit: https://www.nccaom.org/find-a-practitioner-directory/
Photo Credit: UntitledImages/iStock
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