Moving Past Pain: An Athlete’s Guide to Acupuncture

EXERCISE for Men Only; September, 2005
By Lorraine H. Harris, L.Ac., Dipl. O.M., & MTOM

Sooner or later, most of us will experience an injury that will affect our training routine. Although it is often tempting to “work through the pain,” there are times when the body meets that request with a resounding “no!” Fortunately, acupuncture can provide some welcome pain relief—and in many cases reveal valuable information about the cause of an injury—to get us back on track.

In scientific terms, “pain” is explained as the brain’s interpretation of nerve impulses that originate in special receptor cells located throughout the body. As these cells respond to injury, inflammation, or tissue damage, they send impulses to the spinal chord and brain in an attempt to draw our attention to the area in jeopardy. Although pain killers act on the central nervous system to alter this response and provide relief, they do not enable us to identify any underlying factors that may ultimately be the cause of the problem.

Chinese medicine takes a different approach. Based on ancient texts, its principles are as practical as they are time-honored. The Chinese view the human body as a complex network of major energy channels called meridians. These channels run through the entire body, and most have a relationship with one of the vital organs-heart, lung, liver, kidney, and spleen. Together, the meridians form a transportation pathway for a vital life force known as chi (pronounced “chee”.) When a meridian somehow becomes blocked and the flow of chi is impeded, the body falls into a state of imbalance and disharmony, setting the stage for illness, injury, and pain.

Acupuncture is a valuable tool for restoring the balance and flow of chi. Used by the Chinese for over 5,000 years, it is now becoming a popular choice for those in search of an alternative to traditional allopathic medicine. The World Health Association recently identified acupuncture as an effective means of treatment for over 40 conditions, including many musculo-skeletal conditions from which athletes commonly suffer: back pain, muscle pain, muscle weakness and cramping and sciatica. What makes acupuncture so effective in treating conditions often left unresolved by conventional medicine?

An acupuncturist receives rigorous training in a variety of diagnostic techniques that enable a thorough evaluation not only of the problem itself, but also of any other factors that may have contributed to the current dysfunction. Using a combination of patient observation, query about symptoms, lifestyle, and emotions, palpation of tender “points” on the body and pulse diagnosis, a practitioner can identify the specific meridians that need treatment. In addition, an acupuncturist is well-versed in locating the precise points on each meridian that need to be stimulated. The placement of needles in these points restores the movement of chi and reestablishes healthy tissue and organ function.

Those who have never experienced acupuncture may initially shy away from a treatment because the word “needles” conjures up an image of much longer, larger-gauge hypodermics. By contrast, acupuncture needles are roughly the width of a strand of hair, and are placed just under the surface of the skin, usually without any pain or sensation. Most acupuncturists use disposable needles, and those who do not are required by law to follow strict sterilization procedures.

Stimulating acupuncture points allows the body to once again come into balance and harmony, reducing-and in many cases eliminating-pain. Scientific studies have confirmed that acupuncture really works. Dr. Bruce Pomeranz of the University of Toronto has conducted exhaustive research which suggests that acupuncture stimulates peripheral nerves that trigger the release of endorphins-morphine-like compounds produced by the body that block pain pathways in the brain.

Many research studies have addressed the effectiveness of acupuncture for specific sports-related injuries. A 1994 study of people afflicted with tennis elbow found that those treated with acupuncture reported a 55 percent reduction in pain as opposed to only 15 percent for those who received a placebo treatment. A 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that acupuncture is an effective means of relieving pain and improving the mobility of the cervical spine. Another study indicates that acupuncture is beneficial for those suffering from rotator cuff tendonitis.

One of the biggest benefits of Chinese medicine is its ability to enhance the performance of an already-healthy athlete. Regular visits to an acupuncturist will not only keep the body functioning efficiently, but may prevent injury by correcting an imbalance before a more serious situation develops. In other words, the knee sprain you thought was just a result of too rigorous a workout may actually be the body’s way of signaling an organ imbalance that needs attention.

Recent news reports have called into question the safety of some pain medications, many of which are routinely used by athletes who have sustained an injury. With acupuncture gaining popularity as a safe and natural alternative, it is time to rethink our conventional approach to pain management in favor of one that harnesses the wisdom of the ages for optimal health and well-being.