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Acupuncture for athletes

By Mark Umbach

For some, the idea of being stuck all over the body with long needles sounds about as fun as spending a Saturday night sandblasting Grandma's feet. For others, however, a good poking is just what the acupuncturist ordered. All over the country athletes and fitness-focused individuals alike are taking solace in the various pressure techniques offered by this ancient Chinese therapy. For its devout athletic followers, the practice provides pain relief from intense training and competition, among other benefits, allowing them to live up to their game-day potential.

According to the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA), the Medical Chinese Classics believe that channels of energy, known as meridians, run through the body as well as across its surface. These meridians provide nourishment to the various tissues. A disruption in that path could cause a backup of flow in one part of the body, therefore limiting the energy delivered to another. The application of acupuncture needles by an expert acupuncturist unclogs the meridians and allows for proper flow of energy.

The AAMA also offers a more scientific explanation of the acupuncture procedure. It says that that the needles are used to stimulate the nervous system, which then releases chemicals in the muscles. Depending on the application, these chemicals either cause a direct change in the pain sensation or trigger the body to unleash other chemicals or hormones that work as a catalyst to the body's own regulatory system, helping heal the body and remove the cause of the pain or problem.

Anyone who is physically active knows what it's like to have that nagging pain of tennis elbow, or the tendonitis that just won't heal. Acupuncture can treat the cause of an injury, not just the symptoms. The acupuncture needles work with the body to regulate and provide normal functioning of its systems. While something like aspirin works on the body to provide relief from the pain, acupuncture works with the body to enhance its own natural resistance, thereby elevating its capabilities and thresholds for pain.

"Acupuncture has spread because of positive word of-mouth," notes Colleen Canyon, MS, L.Ac., and a member of the Acupuncture Society of New York. "A lot of people come to acupuncture because they've tried everything else. Someone's sister or brother may have tried it and had success."

Many everyday aches and pains can be treated with acupuncture needles, which, unlike hypodermic needles, are often not even felt when inserted into the skin. The process has been growing in popularity among athletes in particular, and not just for those who have sustained an injury. Athletes use the procedure for injury prevention and to calm the body to cope with the stress caused by competition.

What it boils down to, however, is overall physical wellness. When the body is in proper shape, it will perform better. The balancing effects of an acupuncture treatment can, especially when combined with other practices such as yoga or massage, allow the systems of the body to function at their peak. Increased blood flow created by the insertion of the needles both decreases swelling and increases the range of motion, allowing the body to heal more quickly from injury. In addition, acupuncture increases the excretion of the body's own natural painkillers and anti-stress hormones.

Not only does acupuncture offer relief from the battle scars picked up in the line of duty, it also provides psychological benefits As the body feels the effects of the needles on the nervous system, the mind knows that you'll soon be able to lace up the running shoes or hit the bench press. Knowing that you'll be able to compete again has a calming effect on the mind, which, in turn, hastens injury recovery.

Canyon says her patients feel a more acute sense of their bodies when treated. "[There is] decreased inflammation and increased flexibility," she explains. "[The patients] have a greater awareness of their bodies and their movements," which, she says, allows them to more accurately pinpoint the location of their irritation.

More good news for athletes: Acupuncture may cause fewer side effects that could keep you out of competition. A 1993 report released by the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on acupuncture states, "The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies. One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse side effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other medical procedures used for the same conditions."

"Chinese therapy is based on the fact that everyone can be treated," says Canyon. She does note, however, that people in a weakened state, including the elderly, should avoid the needle. That said, many HIV-positive men use acupuncture to treat the side effects of protease inhibitors. To reduce pain, and for other health gains. No matter what your health status, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting acupuncture.

To find a licensed acupuncturist near you, search the AAMA's acupuncturist database.

Mark Umbach is the managing editor of, as well as an active marathoner and swimmer. He works for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and serves on the board of directors for the LGBT swimming and water polo team West Hollywood Aquatics in Los Angeles.