Pushing the Needle

Many athletes are finding that acupuncture helps improve one’s game.

September-October 2018

by Sandra Gordon

When Rebecca Brown, a triathlete turned competitive cyclist in New York City, began experiencing chronic pain during workouts, she visited an acupuncturist at the urging of a friend from her running club.

After discussing Brown’s fitness routine, lifestyle and diet, and what was bothering her, the acupuncturist began “needling,” inserting thin needles into Brown’s skin. “It wasn’t painful. It just felt like a little tiny pinch in some areas,” she says.

After about a half an hour of Brown lying on a treatment table, the needles were removed and the acupuncturist massaged and stretched the painful areas. That was it.

“After the first treatment, I felt a noticeable improvement,” says Brown, owner of a women’s shoe care company. That was 12 years ago. Now in her late 30s, she has been receiving treatments from the same acupuncturist every month or so ever since.

“Sometimes, it’s for an injury and sometimes it’s just for regular tune-ups,” Brown explains. “I’m very active, and my mobility is my number-one priority. My acupuncturist has done a great job working with me to keep me that way.”

Opening Energy Channels

Acupuncture works with life force energy, or qi (pronounced “chi”), which flows through pathways called meridians. “Think of it as a highway system that goes up and down the body,” says Anne Mok, LAc, co-owner of Cornerstone Healing in Brooklyn. Inserting needles at specific points on the meridians is thought to bring energy flow back into balance.

Acupuncture has been gaining ground in the US, especially since 1997, when the National Institutes of Medicine formally recognized it for its value in relieving pain and nausea, and in treating conditions such as asthma, headache and fibromyalgia. Some practitioners also use acupuncture to help their athletic clients enhance performance, reduce pain and recover faster from workouts.

At the very least, “I try to put everyone on a once-a-month tune-up because after about a month of exercise, everyone’s body is pretty shot,” Mok says.

Advantages for Athletes

There are no studies directly proving that acupuncture boosts athletic
performance, and of course it’s no substitute for dedicated training. However, a growing body of research suggests that it can be a healthy complement to your fitness routine by increasing feelings of physical and mental well-being.

A study in the Journal of Complementary Integrative Medicine, for example, found that acupuncture can decrease anxiety before athletic competitions. “Anxiety is a big thing before a race,” Mok says. “When you’re more calm, everything is smooth-flowing. You can actually take a deeper breath.”

Jenny Nieters, LAc, co-owner of Alameda Acupuncture in Alameda, California, and associate professor at the University of East-West Medicine, uses electro-acupuncture, in which a mild, pulsating current is applied to the needles, to give her clients—which include a nationally ranked collegiate men’s rugby team and the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens—a competitive edge. “The day before an athletic performance, a treatment is a big fire to the muscles,” Nieters says.

Nieters also uses acupuncture to speed the process of post-event recovery and to help clients heal faster from injuries.

After a strain or sprain, for example, the muscles surrounding an injured joint can tighten and stiffen up. “Acupuncture can increase blood flow to the area, which brings in tissue-healing oxygen and nutrients,” Nieters explains.

Everyday exercisers may also benefit from acupuncture. David Rachford, a yoga teacher from Santa Barbara, California, who injured his spine while an active firefighter in the Navy, can vouch for that.

After starting acupuncture treatments 10 years ago, Rachford was able to cut down his opiate medication significantly. Then, after adding yoga to the mix, he was able to eliminate it completely.

“I’ve since gone on to run a few marathons and do trail running in addition to teaching yoga,” Rachford says. He has a treatment every month, explaining, “It’s just part of my health investment.”

To find an acupuncture practitioner in your area, ask other members of your gym or athletic club for recommendations. Or you can visit the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at nccaom.org (click on Consumers under the Visitors tab at the top). Sessions can vary in price, but typically range from $85 to $100 for an hour.

Acupuncture is all about focusing on the whole person. Besides seeking an acupuncturist who has experience working with athletes, “look for somebody who listens and will take the time to get to know you,” Rachford says.

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