Use of Acupuncture in Sports Medicine: Pain Relief, Relaxation, and Adhesion Treatment I
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
By Dr. 王凱平
In my last article regarding sports medicine, I mentioned that I used acupuncture to help a swimmer on the Taiwanese national team to relieve wrist pain issues. This was actually not a singular case. At the Incheon Indoor and Martial Arts Games, I also used acupuncture to help a bowler relieve muscle tightness and temporarily decrease the pain of chronic biceps tendonitis, and the athlete eventually helped the team win the championship. Acupuncture is applied in sports medicine for three main purposes: pain relief, relaxation of muscles, fascia, and other soft tissue, and treatment of tissue adhesion.
Acupuncture for Pain Relief
Being poked and pricked by a needle should hurt. How does acupuncture relieve pain? Acupuncture is not some ancient Chinese myth or mysterious power, there is actually scientific evidence to prove its effects. Scientific evidence supporting acupuncture for pain relief includes Gate Control Theory and Endorphin Theory.
Acupuncture X Gate Control Theory
Gate Control Theory was first proposed in the 1960s; simply put, if nerves are provided with a stimulus, once the nerve channel has become completely occupied by these stimuli, it is impossible for pain sensations to pass through these channels to the brain. How does acupuncture create stimuli that obstruct pain? Through the feelings of “soreness, numbness, swelling, and heaviness,” which traditionally are referred to as “obtaining qi.” Apart from acupuncture, other techniques that utilize Gate Control Theory pain relief include electrotherapy, tap massage, and more.
Acupuncture X Endorphin Theory
Endorphin Theory, which developed slightly later than Gate Control Theory, arose in the 1970s when researchers discovered that upon giving the brain stimuli, it released endorphin that relieved pain; acupuncture is one such stimulus. In the 1980s, it was discovered that acupuncture along with electric stimuli of different frequencies could cause the release of different endorphins and different effects. Thus, many later Chinese medicine doctors added electrotherapy to their acupuncture, a process called “electroacupuncture.”
Other Acupuncture Pain Research
In addition to the two above theories, other late-20th-century acupuncture and pain relief researches include “pain receptors of nerve endings”, “the effect of glial cells on pain transmission”, and “the influence of Adenosine A1 receptors on local pain control.” Today, there is plenty of evidence to prove that acupuncture influences the ability of nerve endings to feel pain from the central nervous system, and it could even affect the expression of related genes.
Acupuncture for Muscle and Soft Tissue Relaxation
Long-term muscle tightness can cause many problems, including affecting joint movement, as well as causing trigger points, soreness, and poor postures. Although less often discussed, long-term muscle tightness can also cause excessive tension on tendons, which can lead to tendonitis. Common muscle relaxation methods include hot packs, soft tissue mobilization & massage in physical therapy, stretching, kinesiotape, and massage guns. Acupuncture can also relax muscles and relieve tension on tendons. Although current evidence is not complete, the aforementioned effects usually show in the treatments. Acupuncture causes muscle contraction and twitching sensations, as well as the “obtaining qi” mentioned above. These reactions can relax tight muscles and relieve pains of muscle and tendon. According to Chinese medicine, muscle twitching, soreness, numbness, and pain are all reactions to “obtaining qi”, while in modern Western medicine it is referred to as “Local Twitch Response”.
Acupuncture for Adhesion
After an injury, tissue will recover and heal, but in the process, it may grow uncontrollably; this phenomenon can be seen most clearly in scarring on the skin. Adhesion occurs when uncontrolled growth causes tissue that could originally move freely to stick together. Muscle adhesion may affect contraction and relaxation of muscles, tendon adhesion may cause chronic tendonitis, and fascial adhesion may cause pain and affect movement. Adhesion can also affect local circulation and nerves and obstruct sensations.
The central principle of adhesion treatment is “reconstruction after destruction” because the adhering tissue must first be destroyed to allow it to regrow neatly. There are many ways to accomplish this, such as manual treatment to release adhesion, extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT), stretching, and fluid injections to open up adhesion. Chinese medicine methods include acupuncture (including acupotomy) and traumatology. Please see the related video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRbyQA-HPoU
How Does Chinese Medicine Use Acupuncture to Treat Adhesion?
First, we find the location of the adhesion, then use needles of different widths to pick apart the adhesion. Whenperformingacupotomy, the tip of the needle is actually a tiny scalpel that can perform small-scale incisions. Imagine two pieces of cardboard stuck together, then imagine using tiny needles or scalpels to cut them apart.
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