I am a very active person. I love playing tennis, my tai chi, hiking around the Bay Area. So I am definitely no stranger to the usual soreness, tightness, restricted range of motion, aches and pain on major muscles on my body.
For that reason, I have a particular vested interest in sports acupuncture. As a manual modality, acupuncture has a unique capability to reach and thus heal the trouble muscles in ways that other modalities can not. When it’s coupled with electrical stimulation or moxibustion (warm needle), an adept acupuncturist can work on more muscles and joints with greater effectiveness in a shorter period of time – a feast that no other modality can remotely deliver.
How is sports acupuncture different from regular acupuncture?
In many ways, sports acupuncture exemplifies the underlying working principle of acupuncture much more clearly than the regular traditional acupuncture. And that underlying principle is to relax the target tissues, which, in this particular application is the skeletal muscles. The clinical approach will emphasize on finding the location of the muscle pain, tightness, soreness, etc., and relax them with acupuncture. And the same approach applies to the joints too.
As a result, for sports acupuncturists, there is very little need for the standard TCM diagnosis techniques that are much more geared toward internal medicine. So instead of taking pulses or looking at the tongue, a sports acupuncturist would palpate the patient’s body to find out where the trouble spots are.
But just because sports acupuncture focuses on muscles and joints, it does not mean the practitioner should ignore the rest of the system. Doesn’t matter what the chief complaint is, I always start with the constitutional treatment to calm down the nervous system and release the tension around the abdomen. So, stress management and anxiety reduction is essential in every acupuncture treatment and it is an implicit part of all my acupuncture treatments.
“Acupuncture has helped Diablo Ballet dancers immensely with injury and injury prevention. We are so appreciative to have Shih Hao Ho as our acupuncturist!”
– Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director, Diablo Ballet
What are example of the good applications of sports acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a very flexible and general modality and it can be used to treat many different pain conditions. Instead of assigning a label (eg, I have plantar fasciitis, or I have sciatica), it is important to understand the cause of the pain first. If a pain results from structural damage, then the obvious solution is to repair that damaged structure first and then use acupuncture as an adjunct pain management tool. However, if the pain is due to unbalanced or excessive muscle contraction, then sports acupuncture is the ideal starting point.
For joint pain, in addition to applying pain management techniques, it is also important to reduces excessive tension of the muscles around that muscles, so the joints can have a freer range of motion (ROM). For example, it’s common for patients who have pain in the glutes and lower back to also experience pain in their knees. Because of the pain in the back and glutes, they aren’t able to walk properly and articulate the joints in an optimal ways, the incorrect loadings eventually create knee pain.
How is sports acupuncture different from dry needling?
Drying needling is a subset of acupuncture. And it works by applying the simple principle of acupuncture: needles relax muscle. So if it hurts here, put a needle here. If it hurts there, put a needle there. It is a totally viable and necessary strategy, but it is very easy to misuse this approach. After all, not every painful point is a trigger point. And such direct needling is insufficient, especially for more complicated cases.
Although sports acupuncture focuses on skeletal muscles (ie, muscles that we can see and touch and control), it does not imply that the practitioner can ignore other important aspects of the patient’s wellness and health. In the contrary, a good sports acupuncturist recognizes the importance of relaxing the patient’s mind as a first step first, followed by relaxing the mid-section where the organs reside. This way, the patient can be placed in a better place, so to speak, and the patient feels more relaxed and becomes much more receptive to the rests of the treatment.
And that’s is treating the whole person.
Oh, one last thing.
Big muscles don’t give up without putting up a fight, especially the stubborn ones that have been around for a while (and that’s often the case since many patients tend to wait until they can’t bear the pain anymore)…
So for this situation, I often bolster the acupuncture treatment with electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation is the most effective technique to loosen up the deep, thick stubborn muscles like the glutes, trapezius, or the lower back. The pulsation of electrical stimulation continually contracts and relaxes and shakes the muscles for 20-30 minutes.
Electrical stimulation might sound scary and look intimidating, but in reality, It doesn’t hurt at all. And I have never had a patient complained about it. However, it does feel funky, or weird, and sometimes you might even think of it as physical comedy (seriously!).
With my machine, I can work on five target areas simultaneously for 20 minutes. That’s like having five masseuses giving you a non-stop, deep tissue massage, with everything they have, for 20 minutes! It is not a spa-like long-stroke oiled Swedish massage, but the outcome is always superior.