Sports Acupuncture – Can It Benefit Strength Athletes?

“Every needle I put in, I have a reason for it. It’s not just a concept, but a reason with scientific backing,” states Peter D’Aquino.

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that has long been sought after for its proposed benefits for the body. Its been around for nearly 2,500 years, and is one of the many ancient practices that continues to grow with the ever changing health industry.

Much like Gua Sha Therapy, acupuncture can come with skepticism behind its usefulness for recovery, pain relief, and other health benefits. One of the major premises behind acupuncture revolves around re-channeling the body’s “qi” (life force energy) into different patterns, which will be dependent on what’s causing your issue.

Being the skeptic I am, I wanted to learn more about this ancient form of Chinese medicine. I reached out to Peter D’Aquino L.Ac M.S., Diplomate In Oriental Medicine, of D’Aquino Acupuncture to learn more about how sports acupuncture might benefit the strength athlete.

There’s still a lot of research needed behind sports acupuncture specifically. This article isn’t intended to endorse the practice or suggest having the treatment done, but to have an open conversation with one of its practitioners to learn more.

Why Should Athletes Seek Out an Acupuncturist?

D’Aquino: In TCM, acupuncture is commonly used to balance out dis-harmonies in the body. These dis-harmonies can come in the form of pain reduction, disease, and other health issues. Practitioners do this by inserting needles in various patterns to channel qi through various points of the body known as meridians (meridians include: skin, bones, tendons, muscles, and joints), which is based off of your diagnosed/prescribed/sought out dis-harmony.

It’s important to understand that acupuncture itself and the concepts behind acupuncture aren’t all completely agreed upon, even within the community. That’s one of the reasons it’s so tough to talk about, for example, there’s TCM, which is what most people reference when they talk about acupuncture.

TCM was defined around the 50s or so, when TCM was getting an updated look, but there’s actualy many types of acupuncture, and many schools of acupuncture. The type of acupuncture I do can be radically different than another acupuncturist – the type I do is called Sports Acupuncture.

So How Is Sports Acupuncture Different?

D’Aquino: If you went to a standard acupuncturist, then they may provide you with a different rationale about keeping the body in balance. I don’t do an acupuncture that’s very traditional in that sense. Sport acupuncture – which is a loose title on the practice – is a much more modern technique. It considers a lot of the older ideas of acupuncture, and goes into things like balancing the body, but it also takes into account knowledge we’ve gained since the development of acupuncture.

Sports acupuncture looks at things like anatomy, movement patterns, gait, posture, and trigger points, so it goes way beyond the old fashioned ideas. It’s important to keep in mind that I perform my practice much different than other acupuncturists in my field. Frankly, I think lifters, athletes, and other fitness individuals will benefit from someone coming from my point of view.

Can You Provide a Little Insight Into Traditional Acupuncture, Sports Acupuncture, and Some of Your Techniques?

D’Aquino: There are multiple acupuncture sub-categories that traditional acupuncturists try to assess in relation to your problems.

A common TCM example is “Liver Qi Stagnation,” the liver is believed to be responsible for moving QI smoothly through the body, so things like stress, irritability, and other factors can inhibit this flow. Let’s say you have a big meal, and you’re stressed out, then the meal is going to feel heavy, but if you’re stress free, then in theory the qi will move freely and you’ll digest the food better. That’s a classic TCM energy patterns can be assessed.

I look into traditional TCM patterns that are previously established, but take it a step further and look into muscle testing, posture, and how someone is using their body. This helps me determine trigger points and where to place acupuncture needles. It mixes Western science and TCM practices.

The original group of acupuncture points (traditional meridians) and newer trigger points will have a ton of crossover. There’s an old saying in TCM that says, “If you hit the right point on the body, then it will feel similar to catching a fish, because you get that initial jump.” It’s the same feeling when you hit a trigger point. I take the traditional acupuncture points and modify them slightly to the modern understanding of anatomy, which has changed and is far better than it used to be in TCM.

I’m not saying all acupuncture points are purely trigger points, or only used for that, but there’s not a coincidence there’s such a crossover between trigger points and traditional acupuncture points. Not to mention, when you’re doing acupuncture and you’re using a needle in the traditional points, you’re not just sticking a needle in and walking away.

What you’re doing is sticking the needle in a very specific technique. The techniques of manipulating an acupuncture needle usually require you to lift and thrust the needle lightly in and out, and you can also spin the needle. It’s the spinning of the needle that wraps the fascial fibers around the needle, and that’s what creates a trigger point, or change in the fascia, which I believe is then sending communication to the brain. I think wrapping the fascial fiber around the needle is essential to understanding how sports acupuncture (and other forms) work.

Simply sticking a needle into a point isn’t acupuncture, to quote one of my professors, “That’s not acupuncture, that’s just simply sticking a needle into something.” It’s the wrapping of the fascial fibers – which acts as a super highway – that relays information through mechanoreceptors throughout the body to the brain. Fascia used to be thought of just as a thin coating over the muscle that was useless, but now we’re realizing it’s full of information including mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors.

It’s important to keep in mind that sports acupuncture is definitely in the minority of acupuncture styles. Not everyone agrees with the logic behind this style of acupuncture, but there is a group of people looking forward and into how these things work.

What are Some Specific Reasons an Athlete Should Consider Seeking Out a Sports Acupuncturist?

D’Aquino: Again, the distinction between myself and other acupuncturist’s styles is that I focus on movement patterns, releasing muscles, and other training related areas. This is the reason most of my clients, which include physical therapists, dancers, yoga teachers, and other fitness professionals, like what I do.

I focus on releasing muscles, and for most, some of these areas are difficult to release and get into otherwise with hand manipulation and other tactics. For example, if I drop a needle in your glute for release, it’s going to provide a much different result than someone’s elbow. You just can’t get the same release in a muscle like the piriformis, and other deep muscles.

I also utilize electric stimulation, or e-stem, which is also proving to have some incredible benefits. And it’s really only just now being understood. It can help regenerate tissue and help send signals to stem cells. A recent study published by Indiana University, found that electrical stimulation helped send signals to the hypothalmus, which then sent signals to stem cells for tissue regeneration. That’s a relatively new discovery.

Another thing they’ve found with electrical stimulation is that it increases the collagen in the tissue and promotes repair. With traditional tissues that are tough to repair and recover like tendons, then the use of acupuncture and Gua-Sha are both useful tools. Acupuncture also holds some anti-inflammatory effects to help an athlete heal faster.

For me, electroacupuncture is fundamental for what I do. It’s not just on trigger points for the purpose of releasing muscle, but for the recovery purposes as I just mentioned (tissue and collagen regeneration, plus the anti-inflammatory effects). To me, those are three pretty big reasons to see a sports acupuncturist, especially for sports related issues.

Can You Provide Any Details On the Rationale You Use When Treating Clients?

D’Aquino: If you’re a sports acupuncturist, then you don’t just go around looking for tight muscles and releasing them, there’s an art to it. When you understand movement patterns, and why muscles are tight in one area, then you have to be able to distinguish why things are tight. I’m looking for muscle balance, and every muscle has its reciprocal, so I’m looking for ways to create the balanced body.

I’m not just needling a tight muscle, maybe I’m needling a reciprocal muscle, or a muscle that’s down the kinetic chain. A tight calve is rarely just a tight calve. In that case, I might be looking at the hip also, and finding the areas creating the imbalance. You get phenomenal results when you account for the entire fascial, kinetic, postural, and movement chains, and you put them all into one style of acupuncture.

If I were to just release your tight traps when you have tight traps without taking into consideration other tight muscles, then it wouldn’t really be solving the problem. I often have clients come in with tight rhomboids, so I look at the pecs and other areas that could be reciprocating the issue. By doing this, you get great results. I’ll also incorporate some physical therapist-esque methods such as stretching, and other strengthening exercises.

Often I’ll refer clients to physical therapists I’m close with to begin learning more stretching, strengthening, and release techniques, and that’s when you see the best results. Acupuncture isn’t a strengthening technique, but when you combine releasing and strengthening, then you see the best results (from what I’ve seen and practiced). It’s the integration of traditional techniques with newer techniques to find the best results.

Final Word

Sports acupuncture is a little less known and less popular than traditional acupuncture styles. One thing Peter D’Aquino stressed was that not every acupuncturist agrees with every style and method. Is sports acupuncture for everyone? Not necessarily, but as the literature and research grows, so do the methods sports acupuncturists are integrating into their practices.

For the strength athlete with muscle imbalances, it could be a useful tool for developing proper movement patterns and balance. As our knowledge of the body continues to grow, so do the methods used for creating harmony in movement, recovery, and growth.