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‘Legal’ needles could play role in performance enhancement, recovery

by Jason Peterson
Feb 7, 2013

Today’s athletes will try any number of things to perform at a peak level, ranging from the legal – loading up on carbs, psyching out to music, wearing lucky shoes – to the not-so-legal – shooting up with steroids, human growth hormone, or other performance-enhancing drugs.

Add one more to the growing list of pre-performance rituals for athletes of all levels seeking that elusive edge over their competitors: acupuncture.

These needles of the legal variety have been soothing aching muscles for thousands of years and, according to researchers Bobby Cheema and Caroline Smith, of University of Western Sydney, Australia, may yet have staying power. Even more promising are the research’s implications for people with chronic risk disease factors, such as obesity or Type 2 diabetes, who struggle to recover quickly from workout sessions.

“Certainly, athletes are looking for ways to recover more quickly between exercise sessions or from competitions and this is possibly where the effects of acupuncture might be most beneficial,” said Smith, an experienced clinical research and acupuncture practitioner who collaborated with Cheema. “We do have some evidence that elite athletes are widely using complementary and alternative medicines.”

Case in point: Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant tweeted an image of his left leg riddled with needles on Jan. 5 with the caption, “Acupuncture therapy. Whatever it takes.”

Cheema, who primarily studies the effects of exercise training on chronically diseased and at-risk populations, reviewed four trials studying the effects of single-treatment acupuncture administered just prior to engaging in aerobic exercise. A total of 67 males and 17 females ages 18 and older and ranging from semi-competitive cyclists to elite basketball players participated in the studies.

Three of the trials applied acupuncture for 20 to 30 minutes just before the exercise session, a 20-kilometer ride on a stationary bicycle. In the fourth trial, the needles stayed in the participants through the duration of the exercise and removed during recovery.

The researchers measured the participants’ heart rate, blood pressure, time of completion, and volume of oxygen consumption, among other factors. Cheema said that while the findings offer preliminary support for acupuncture as a means of enhancing exercise performance and recovery, they are certainly not a guarantee that an athlete will run faster or farther, for example.

“The research is in its very early stages,” Cheema said. “In terms of boosting performance, I think more research is definitely needed. People who use acupuncture regularly would likely benefit in terms of their overall health and this might translate to improvements in exercise performance, though more research on this is needed.”

John Burns, a biomedicine instructor at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine in Uptown and an adjunct instructor at Marquette University, said that acupuncture must be part of a holistic approach in order to be effective.

“In our medicine, it’s not just about the physical ability of the person, it’s also the stress reduction and emotional aspects of an athlete that can be enhanced,” said Burns, who also coaches a cycling and cross-country skiing team. “Through things like meditation, we can teach our athletes how to become more relaxed and more ready. It’s not just about tuning out, but tuning in to their abilities and stay more calmed and relaxed in stressful situations.”

Burns said acupuncture’s ability to raise levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which acts as a natural antidepressant, produces a relaxing effect that can last for days and helps conserve energy rather than waste it on stress. This can be critical for those with debilitating chronic conditions that diminish their energy levels and require more time to recover between exercise sessions.

“Even for people who had the treatments for an injury and they come back later on for a ‘tune-up,’ it relaxes them,” Burns said. “It has potential for anybody – injured or not injured.”

What does this mean for the wide world of sports? Will “Hellraiser” imitations begin popping up at the local gym in the near future?

Not necessarily. While it’s possible to exercise with needles in certain points of the body, Burns said it could cause tissue damage.

He also said the proliferation of acupuncture as an alternative therapy for athletes has opened a Pandora’s box for unlicensed practitioners hoping to cash in on the trend.

“Physical therapists are using something very similar called dry needling, which is kind of a big debate and controversy right now,” Burns said.

Doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors untrained Eastern medicine are placing stainless steel filiform needles – the same as those used in acupuncture – in many of the same points used by acupuncturists. The only difference, Burns said, is the name of the practice.

“I think it’s to get around the concerns or the need to go to school for acupuncture,” he said.

On the bright side, Smith said that acupuncture has already been known to treat a wide range of sports injuries including sprained ankles and knees, muscle contusions, torn ligaments and bruises.

Cheema’s review found that needles placed above the wrist in points PC-5 and PC-6 along the pericardium meridian, a channel extending from the heart down to the fingers in each arm through which the chi, or life force, flows, yielded significant physiological effects versus the control group.

Both Smith and Cheema concur with Burns that acupuncture must be used in conjunction with other forms of complementary and alternative medicine if any athlete is serious about increasing his or her performance.

“The use of acupuncture has increased dramatically in the general population over the past several decades and the trend is showing that complementary medicine will become even more accepted and widely used in the future.,” Cheema said. “Ideally, we believe that the integration of complementary and alternative medicine with other preventative, proactive interventions, such as exercise, will benefit a large portion of the population in terms of health benefits. This may help curtail the current epidemics of preventative diseases which are largely the product of a sedentary and imbalanced lifestyle.”