The origins of sports acupuncture

what is sports acupunture?

The tale of Sports Acupuncture is one that involves several key players - world governments, healthcare organizations, authoritative medical boards, research groups, sports franchises and some of the greatest athletes to ever play their respective games.

acupuncture comes west

The tale of sports acupuncture is one that involves several key players – world governments, healthcare organizations, authoritative medical boards, research groups, sports franchises and some of the greatest athletes to ever play their respective games. The story of how acupuncture has come to be universal in the athletic world and embraced as a treatment for everything from stress management to Tennis Elbow and other sports injuries is a story of evidence based growth and acceptance over time. Unfortunately, governmental bodies and healthcare organizations who sought to repress what they saw as an unproven practice rooted in mysticism have held acupuncture’s growth back. As a result, the practice has been forced to prove itself time and again over the last fifty years. 

Acupuncture first caught attention during the 1970’s, when President Nixon’s efforts to improve relations with China spurred an interest in eastern culture, philosophy and medicine. Journalists sent to China in 1971 to help Americans better understand their new trade partner soon reported back with incredible stories of acupuncture being used in all manner of medical treatment. These articles sparked a sudden wave of interest in acupuncture across the United States, especially in California and New York City, as well as a rise in the number of practicing acupuncturists, the number of acupuncture schools and boards of certification, and, unfortunately, greater suspicion and mistrust from the mainstream medical community. Threatened by this spike in interest and guided by a Cold War-era mentality, the medical community refused to fairly or accurately research acupuncture.(1)

Regardless of pushback, acupuncture was embraced by many who saw direct results from treatment. The practice became of particular interest to athletes in 1972, when popular LA Ram’s quarterback Roman Gabriel used acupuncture to quickly treat an injured elbow mid-season and reported  “60-70% improvement in motion and relief from pain” to the New York Times between games. This caused an eruption of attention from pro athletes & organized sports teams, and many began seeking acupuncture treatment. Despite the federal and state government’s push back to control the narrative of eastern medicine as it spread in popularity, athletes’ continued use and proven results encouraged the general public to accept acupuncture.(2)

To the public it was obvious – multi-million dollar sports franchises would never use a risky or unproven treatment on their players, thus qualifying the practice’s legitimacy. Regardless of a wave of state and federal restrictions and regulations aimed at limiting the spread of acupuncture in the United States, public demand throughout the Western world caused legislative bodies and medical organizations to buckle by the mid 1970’s. In 1975, the Senate created the Acupuncture Advisory Committee under the Board of Medical Examiners and made the practice legal throughout the United States and in 1979 the World Health Organization began researching acupuncture in earnest.(3) As organized medicine began to take a less rigid stance, their research efforts increased as well. By 1997 the National Institute of Health had begun wide scale research due to “mounting evidence from clinical trials” and even started recommending the practice be taught in American medical schools.(4)

Sports Acupuncture Research

Once the medical institutions and organizations of the Western World began researching and studying acupuncture without pretense, the practice exploded in popularity. Throughout the 2000’s acupuncture continued to see exponential growth throughout the United States, Australia and Europe.(5) Whereas the practice was most common along the West Coast and within the New York City metro area during the 1980’s, by the early 2000’s acupuncture could be found in every state, and within the NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL and numerous other major sports organizations. Thanks to the broadening research and acceptance of the practice, during this era acupuncturists who specialized in sports medicine, fertility and other specific applications became far more common as well. 

As interest in sports acupuncture grew it also took a more clinical angle, and studies regarding acupuncture as a sports medicine application began to grow in number. Studies became more specific, researching how acupuncture interacted with different types of athletes and sports injuries, reinforcing what had already been accepted by many – there was a clear and distinct link between acupuncture as a sports medicine application, injury recovery and prevention, and performance enhancement.(6,7,8) With these developments and the expansion of the practice throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s, sports acupuncture has developed into an extensive field entirely separate from traditional acupuncture. 

Applications

Athletes have endorsed acupuncture for decades due to its ability to promote health and wellness, prevent and treat injuries, and improve performance. The emergence of sports acupuncture as a distinct field has expanded the range of applications for the practice, which now encompasses everything from acute injury treatment to performance optimization. Common applications of sports acupuncture include addressing musculoskeletal injuries such as back pain, joint pain, and sports-specific ailments like tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, and runner’s knee, as well performance optimization. This may include reducing stress and anxiety, improving focus and concentration, and enhancing overall physical and mental wellbeing. 

Trigger point therapy is an application of sports acupuncture that benefits athletes  immensely due to its ability to provide immediate pain relief and enhance performance. Trigger points are taut, palpable areas of inflammation within muscles that can cause pain and discomfort. They commonly develop in athletes due to repetitive motions, muscular imbalances or poor posture, among other factors. Acupuncture is used to target and ‘release’ trigger points, allowing for greater mobility and pain alleviation. Trigger point therapy is especially useful in sports that require repetitive movements, such as running, cycling and swimming, as well as contact sports that can lead to muscle strains and sprains.(9)

Neurofunctional acupuncture is another approach that is commonly used in sports medicine. It focuses on the nervous system and its interactions with the musculoskeletal system. When an athlete trains hard to meet the physical demands of their sport, inflammation and injury can disrupt the communication between their nerves and musculoskeletal system. This often results in pain and prevents their body from performing at its full potential. In neurofunctional acupuncture, needles are used to target specific nerve pathways and motor points, which is the location where a motor nerve enters and interacts with a muscle and its fascial networks. This stimulation of the junction between the nervous and musculoskeletal systems improves a muscle’s functionality, contractility and the circulation surrounding it. In the terms of an athlete, they will be stronger, faster, more flexible and have an enhanced overall performance.(10)

Trigger point release explained

Mike's Experience with sports Acupuncture

Ever since I was young, playing sports is how I’ve always chosen to spend the majority of my free time. The first sports that I played were soccer and baseball, then basketball took over and ball became life for years. Every day after school my friends and I would walk to the park and play pick up games. If we were short players, we would play ’21’ until it got too dark outside to see – I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood.

As I got older I started playing basketball competitively for my hometown. As a sophomore in High School I was gearing up for my first game on the Junior Varsity team when I started to develop some lower back pain. For weeks I practiced through the pain before the opening game of the season arrived. The day came and while my team was warming up I felt this excruciating, stabbing pain in my back when I landed after a lay up. I was carried off the court and an MRI later confirmed that I had herniated my L4-L5 discs. 

I began rehabbing my back with physical therapy but I was not making the strides that I needed to get back on the court. We then started to incorporate acupuncture and my recovery suddenly catapulted forward. After a few months of consistent acupuncture, the pain subsided and I became strong enough to play basketball and finish the season.

Later on, after graduating college, I decided to put my energy towards martial arts. I signed up to the local Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym in town and became a quick study, picking up the basics in a few weeks. After about a month of BJJ and earning a couple of stripes on my belt, I heard a pop in my knee while doing drills. My knee became extremely inflamed and unstable. I had difficulty walking on it for weeks and an MRI confirmed that I had torn my medial meniscus. I was recommended surgery but decided to go a different route. I rested my knee, implemented corrective exercises and began acupuncture treatment once again. This combination maintained my knee to a point where I could once again run, play sports, and lift weights without any discomfort at all. 

 

Fast forward to today and my sport of choice has become tennis. I have been playing multiple times a week now for the last two years and am very happy with my progress. Playing tennis obsessively has not come without injury however as I developed Tennis Elbow soon after picking up the sport. Luckily for me, I now have my license in acupuncture and can effectively treat my Tennis Elbow. Any time I have a flare-up, I throw a few needles along my elbow and am ready to play again the very next day.

My love for sports and the injuries that followed have shaped me into who I am today. I am grateful for acupuncture for several reasons – mainly, acupuncture has provided me with pain relief and healing. Without acupuncture, I may not have been able to pursue my passion in sports. My personal experiences with alternative medicine have resulted in the Synergy motto, “The greatest investment one can make is in their own health.” Acupuncture has allowed me to work within sports and help athletes recover and improve their game. I deeply enjoy the challenge of assessing each individual, creating a plan unique to their needs, and helping them reach their goals and thus the best version of themselves.

Sports Acupuncture takes center stage

Today, sports acupuncture is ubiquitous in professional sports – players across the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and more frequently report using acupuncture for injury treatment, workout recovery and performance enhancement. Many franchises employ a team acupuncturist or have agreements with local clinics to treat players routinely. The practice has even grown beyond the professional sphere – and reports of college and high school athletes seeking acupuncture have grown as well. NCAA players and other big players in the college world have taken to the practice, and rumor has it some college football and basketball teams have even begun recruiting acupuncturists to keep their players in peak condition. 

While many players are not particularly vocal about acupuncture treatment, many in an effort to keep their game-day prep secret, the biggest stars for whom the spotlight is unavoidable have confirmed consistent and pervasive use. After all it is no coincidence that Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant all have made use of acupuncture throughout their careers – some to this day. Others, like Lebron James, employ the other methodologies of TCM as well. Beyond those elite few, numerous Hall of Famers and top tier athletes such as Randy Johnson, Jerry Rice, Dwanye Wade, Steve Nash, Joe Montana and Micheal Strahan are all known to have utilized acupuncture throughout their careers. 

Acupuncture has become so prevalent in the world of sports medicine that athletes of all types seek its therapeutic benefits these days. From gymnasts to winter sports athletes to NASCAR and Formula 1 racers, the number of athletes who seek acupuncture grows by the day – as does its positive impact on the players and teams who utilize it. 

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Sources

  1. “World Health Organization.” Accessed February 28, 2023. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/351993/WH-1979-Dec-eng.pdf?sequence=1
  2. Wolpe, Paul Root. “The Maintenance of Professional Authority: Acupuncture and the American Physician.” Social Problems 32, no. 5 (1985): 409–24. https://doi.org/10.2307/800772.
  3. Wolpe, Paul Root. “The Maintenance of Professional Authority: Acupuncture and the American Physician.” Social Problems 32, no. 5 (1985): 409–24. https://doi.org/10.2307/800772.
  4. Lu, Dominic P, and Gabriel P Lu. “An Historical Review and Perspective on the Impact of Acupuncture on U.S. Medicine and Society.” Medical acupuncture. U.S. National Library of Medicine, October 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796320/#:~:text=In%201997%2C%20the%20National%20Institutes,%2C%20asthma%2C%20stroke%20rehabilitation%2C%20and.  
  5. Lu, Dominic P, and Gabriel P Lu. “An Historical Review and Perspective on the Impact of Acupuncture on U.S. Medicine and Society.” Medical acupuncture. U.S. National Library of Medicine, October 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796320/#:~:text=In%201997%2C%20the%20National%20Institutes,%2C%20asthma%2C%20stroke%20rehabilitation%2C%20and.  
  6. Lin, Zen-Pin, Department of Holistic Wellness, Lawrence W. Lan, Department of Global Marketing and Logistics, Tsung-Ying He, Institute of Medical and Molecular Toxicology, Shi-Pin Lin, et al. “Effects of Acupuncture Stimulation on Recovery Ability of Male Elite Basketball Athletes.” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. Accessed February 28, 2023. https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S0192415X09006989.  
  7. Yuill, Erik A., MSc, BSc, BPHE,  Jason A. Pajaczkowski DC, BSc, FCCSS(C), FCCRS(C), Scott D. Howitt DC, MSc, FCCSS(C), FCCRS(C). “Conservative care of sports hernias within soccer players: A case series.” Prevention & Rehabilitation – Case Series: Sport Injury | Volume 16, Issue 4, 540-548, October 2012
  8. Kang, Liang, Peijie Liu, Aishi Peng, Bingxin Sun, Yumei He, Zenghao Huang, Minjia Wang, Yushi Hu, Benxiang He. “Application of traditional Chinese therapy in sports medicine.” Sports Medicine and Health Science | Volume 3, Issue 1, 11-20, March 2021.
  9. Dunning, James, Raymond Butts, Firas Mourad, Ian Young, Sean Flannagan, and Thomas Perreault. “Dry Needling: A Literature Review with Implications for Clinical
  10. Seidel, P.M.P., Seidel, G.K., and B.M. Gans. “Precise Localization of the Motor Nerve Branches to the Hamstring Muscles: An Aid to the Conduct of Neurolytic Procedures.” Arch Phys Med Rehabil 77 (1996) : 1157-1160.