How Acupuncture is helping athletes win Gold!
If you’re like me, you’ve been eagerly reading story after story about Rio Olympians using Chinese medicine to improve their athletic performance. Though it was a treat to admire the athletes’ amazing speed, strength, and grace during this Summer Games, I must admit that I was most interested in how they used acupuncture and other complementary treatments to take care of their bodies.
Top athletes have been using acupuncture to improve performance for decades, if not longer. Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medaled swimmer Daniel Kowalski even made a video about acupuncture’s power to increase energy, ease colds, and enhance sleep quality. He credits all of these benefits with keeping him in peak physical condition during his races.
But sports acupuncture really began to be talked about at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which happened to take place in its country of origin. After 29-year-old Yin Jian won China’s first ever gold medal in sailing, it was widely reported that she used acupuncture and massage treatments to recover from each strenuous race day. In her own words, acupuncture helped her relieve muscle strains all over her body: “My waist, shoulder, legs and feet.”
Acupuncture also made an appearance at the 2012 Summer Games, when runner DeeDee Trotter brought her acupuncturist with her to the London Olympics. He even treated her for an injury, right there on the track! Today, top athletes are still using it as part of a multi-pronged lifestyle approach to reduce pain, increase energy, and recover from fatigue or injury.
In Rio, perhaps the most widely circulated story in this category was about Michael Phelps’ curious circular bruises. This telltale sign of his pre-competition cupping regimen garnered a lot of press, in no small part because he is the most decorated Olympian of all time. Phelps regularly uses this stress-relieving treatment before races to ease sore muscles and boost energy. Many other Team USA athletes were also sporting these purple dots throughout the Games, especially swimmers and gymnasts.
Like acupuncture, cupping is a soothing therapy that many people use to reduce stress, improve blood flow, ease pain, and generally put the body back into balance. During a cupping session, a practitioner will use glass, plastic, or bamboo cups to create a warm suction on their patients’ bodies. Then, he or she will allow them to relax for a time as the cups draw blood to the surface of the skin. Cupping has been used in China for thousands of years, and has recently become a popular complementary treatment in America.
Another frequently reported story was about Aly Raisman, captain of the American women’s gymnastics team at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. She returned for this year’s Games with an acupuncture regimen that helps her recover from strenuous sessions. It was an integral part of her commitment to win gold again this year – which she did – and no wonder! Acupuncture is a powerful tool for managing painful or debilitating musculoskeletal problems. It is widely believed to release endorphins, hormones that relieve pain and boost energy very quickly. Gymnasts are frequently injured in this particularly intense sport; Raisman knows that to stay on top, she needs a highly effective routine to keep pain and inflammation at bay.
The same can likely be said for Japan’s Chisato Fukushima, the world record holder in women’s 100 meters and 200 meters. In the first round of the 200 meters in Rio, Fukushima was seen with about a dozen small, brown patches all over her torso. In interviews after the race, she explained that they were pieces of a special tape known as EK 6000, which is meant to stimulate acupuncture points. It was created at her trainer’s bone-setting clinic in Japan, and Fukushima believes its effects are profound: “It feels good. It feels like I am soaking in a hot spring, and I can feel the range of motion in the joints of my body expand.”
As part of her holistic approach to health, Eleanor Patterson, a high jumper from Australia, uses Chinese medicine in her post-workout recovery:
Recovery includes yoga, water therapy, and, being a Chinese medicine devotee, acupuncture and cupping. She also avoids eating gluten and limits sugar and dairy.
Over the past decade, a steady stream of clinical trials has supported the use of acupuncture and other Chinese medicine modalities to improve athletic performance. For example, a 2012 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that acupuncture is highly effective for pain management. It even produced better results than sham acupuncture, which suggests that its observed efficacy is not due to the placebo effect.
A review conducted at Utah State University in 2013 found that, in addition to its potential for pain management, acupuncture appears to help athletes increase their exercise capacity and decrease their heart rate over time. These results were bolstered in 2015, when a research team at Shanghai University of Sport demonstrated that, compared to extended rest, acupuncture significantly improves exercise recovery.
Olympic athletes have long known about acupuncture’s healing and restorative effects. Athletes demand incredible strength and endurance from their bodies, and they understand the positive impact that TCM treatments can have on their overall health. Paired with sensible lifestyle habits, like a balanced diet and stress management, acupuncture can have a profound impact on our wellbeing.
In my personal practice, I have seen great success using Chinese medicine – which treats the whole person, not just his or her symptoms – to manage my patients’ sport-related ailments.
Updated September 3, 2016