A Wisconsin race walker kept one part of her pre-race routine secret: her regular acupuncture visits. “She and her trainer both thought that was a big part of her winning, and they didn’t want people to know so she wouldn’t lose her edge,” explains Colleen D. Lewis, LAc, an acupuncturist who treats patients with UW Health’s Integrative Health Program.
But many athletes are starting to speak up about their reliance on acupuncture to treat injuries and enhance performance. Professional athletes ranging from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to NBA star Kobe Bryant are fans of the ancient Chinese medicinal practice, which involves gently inserting needles into particular points of the body.
The Chinese medicine explanation behind acupuncture is that it may stimulate the body’s healing by manipulating qi, or energy flow. Care is tailored to each individual. For example, an athlete with digestive problems will be treated differently from one who has allergies.
“It becomes about which elements are out of balance, how are they out of balance, and how does that affect that person’s constitution,” says Lewis, who has helped clients ranging from volleyball players recovering from plantar fasciitis to a competitive swimmer who had a sensitivity to chlorine. “That’s one of the beauties of acupuncture is that it can be targeted and streamlined for exactly what that person needs.”
Needling different parts of the body is thought to help in tangible ways, such as increasing blood flow to injured muscles. Lewis recommends several sessions for optimal results. The first phase of treatment may involve one or two visits a week to prepare the body for the rigors of training.
“Many athletes reinjure themselves in the same way, so we’re trying not only to help with energy and prevent an injury, but we’re also working on the constitution of the body,” says Lewis.
About five days prior to a big athletic event such as a race or game, your acupuncturist might focus on any areas that have bothered you in the past, such as a bad knee or ACL. “We’re trying to break up any remaining stiffness or adhesions, trying to bring better energy and blood flow to the area and to the whole body,” Lewis explains. While earlier treatments might be more aggressive and could involve electrical stimulation, treatments three to five days leading up to the event should be lighter and aim “to support the system so it’s functioning at its best,” she says.
Some people may also use acupuncture immediately before or after a big event, and then as part of the recovery phase in the weeks afterward. “Each phase has a different focus, but each phase is designed to help the athlete be as efficient as they can be,” Lewis explains.
Considering Acupuncture? Do Your Homework
Lewis recommends the following tips for athletes who are considering incorporating acupuncture into their regimen:
Do Your Homework
Make sure you’re working with a nationally board-certified acupuncturist (that’s a requirement for all of the acupuncturists on staff with UW Health’s Integrative Health Program ). If you can, try to have a conversation with the acupuncturist first to make sure it’s a good personality fit. You may want to ask about his or her experience treating athletes. “You want to have someone who at least appreciates the fact that you’re working your butt off for this athletic endeavor,” Lewis says. Some acupuncturists even specialize in treating athletes, though that’s not a necessity.
Ideally, you want to start with weekly sessions six or so weeks before a big athletic event or competition, Lewis advises. Those who are recovering from an injury might need more sessions than those who are simply looking for performance enhancement. Keep in mind that you may need to wait up to six hours after an acupuncture treatment before exercising to allow your body time to rest.
Use It as a Complement to Other Therapies
If you’re recovering from an injury, acupuncture can be especially helpful when used in conjunction with physical therapy, Lewis notes. “Acupuncture may improve blood flow and make your PT exercises more effective, lessening your time to recovery,” she says. Acupuncture may also help lower or replace your use of pain medications, she says.
Don’t Wait for an Injury
“People are limited by the belief that acupuncture only works for pain,” she says. “But it’s easier to prevent injury than it is to heal injury.” Other benefits could include loosening tight muscles for greater range of motion or reducing pre-performance jitters. “Part of it is the mental preparation for the event. If we have someone who loves to participate but they get really nervous and get stage fright, we may help them calm down so they can be more efficient in getting into that zone,” she says. “It may also help you have more endurance and recover faster. Our goal is to give athletes the extra edge to accomplish more.”