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How does acupuncture work and does it benefit rehabilitation and sports performance?

Fancy getting needles stuck in you? Acupuncture could improve your recovery from injury, and your triathlon performance says musculoskeletal expert Jack Loveday

Acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine needles into the body for therapeutic benefit. The two most common forms of this are the acupuncture used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Western medical acupuncture (WMA). Both types explain how acupuncture works in very different ways, despite often being very similar in how they’re practised.

TCM explains the effect of acupuncture as the balancing of the qi (pronounced ‘chi’) – the invisible life force within us. WMA, on the other hand, explains its effects in terms of physiological and chemical changes within the body, in line with modern scientific knowledge.

Acupuncture is useful in the treatment of a wide range of injuries that are common for multisport athletes, including muscular overuse injuries, tendinopathies, joint and ligament sprains, as well as conditions like osteoarthritis. Because of its wide ranging effects, it can be useful for both acute and chronic injuries. Some common uses include:

  Acupunture close to the injury site releases hormones that increase blood flow. This improves the rate of healing in chronic and sub-acute injuries by increasing the amount of oxygen and other nutrients getting to the area. Various other substances like adrenaline are also released, providing a pain-relieving effect. This may mean that you can avoid taking painkillers such as ibuprofen, which commonly cause unwanted side-effects.

  A common after-effect of acupuncture is a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation. It can help to improve the negative outlook of an injured athlete.

 Beyond rehab, acupuncture is now recognised in Western medicine as a first-line treatment for conditions such as migraine. Again, a benefit of acupuncture here is the ability to avoid the side-effects of strong painkillers.

Some research even shows that pre-exercise stimulation of acupuncture points can have a direct performance-enhancing effect. One particular study showed a clear improvement of 4secs in a 1km run time trial.

Research has also shown improved recovery rates between training sessions – although the reasons why are not fully understood. With regard to this, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) don’t consider acupuncture as performance-enhancing as such, but their guidelines are fairly vague on its pre-competition use. 

Jack Loveday is a qualified podiatrist with and has a strong interest in musculoskeletal medicine with postgraduate courses and qualifications in acupuncture, gait analysis, gait retraining and joint mobilisation amongst other things. He is a member of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists and an active member of the British Medical Acupuncture Society


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