Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Acupuncture: Healing and Getting (Un)Stuck from Injury


The #1 question I get when I tell people I use acupuncture as a healing and treatment tool is: "Doesn't it hurt?" We all have memories of being a little kid in the doctor's office as a nurse walked over with what looked like a foot-long needle and stabbed us with it. The agony that could not be calmed, even by the coolest Snoopy bandage!

Actually, acupuncture doesn't feel like that at all. Nor does it feel like getting your ears pierced. Nor does it feel like getting a tattoo. (Sorry, Mom...) The closest approximation I can give is a very localized feeling of using a stim machine--or of a slight electrical tingle--but in your muscles, not across your skin.

Before I finally tried acupuncture in 2011, my thoughts on it--in spite of hearing from some teammates that it was a great healing and injury prevention tool--were that it was somewhere between New Age-y weirdness and masochism. You're suggesting I get someone to stab a bunch of needles into my knotted, injured muscle? Thanks, but I'll stick to my ice packs and stretching and massage.

Acupuncture needles are tiny... 10 of them fit in a typical medical syringe!

And then I found myself racing in Germany on a chronically injured rib--and the only team who'd brought a physical therapist was Japan. A favor was called in and I ended up being lucky enough to be treated by their team physio, who was astounded that I'd never used acupuncture as a treatment option. was amazing. There was certainly no pain from the needles, which looked almost as thin as a human hair. Instead, the needles found some of the nerves that refused to relax, and I felt them "fire"--contract or flex part of the neighboring muscle--and then let go. I could actually feel the muscles around my injury calm down. After that, the physio was able both to adjust my spine (like a chiropractor) and do a smaller amount of massage that really made a difference, because the area was not on lockdown. It took exactly one session for me to become a believer.

A map of our nervous system. What's driving our muscles!

As athletes, as rowers, we focus a lot on our muscles, our lungs, our balance, our mental game. We don't think as much about how all of those are run and impacted by our nervous system. When I drive my legs as hard as I can, that is my brain telling the nerves in my legs to fire the right muscles in the right sequence. Although sometimes muscles sustain actual injuries and damage, it's my experience that many of the common "knots" that don't go away after stretching, foam-rolling, and a nap after practice are often caused by the nervous system being out of whack. Sometimes it's your body trying to protect an injured or weaker muscle or area; sometimes it's a muscle that's been twisted or overused. Either way, acupuncture is a very under-utilized tool that can directly tap into the nervous system and help get the recovery and healing process back on track.

The acupuncture map.

I've been lucky enough to be treated since by some of the best practitioners in the country since: Dana Harbison in Fort Washington, PA; Lili Gould in San Diego, CA; and Dr. Melanie Six as well as Dr. Yong Chen in Alexandria, VA. Definitely cheek them out if they're local to you! Also, check with your insurance--many policies now cover some or all of acupuncture treatments.

Don't write off acupuncture, especially as a tool to add to your healing and recovery arsenal. I'm so thankful I learned about its benefits!

Heal up and keep training hard--here's to hoping this extra-long winter is over soon!


Unknown said...

I’m glad you finally tried acupuncture after years of apprehension! I understand why people are wary of having to undergo this method, since it is, indeed, scary thinking that you are made to look like a pin cushion. Like you said, it’s not painful, though there is just a certain sensation at the site where the needle is being inserted. This is actually a good thing, since it means that the acupuncture point is working.

Anita Hines

Unknown said...

Wow! I’m glad you changed your mind about acupuncture treatment. You must’ve been dead nervous on your first try! A lot of people think acupuncture causes more pain than relief, but it honestly gives utmost relief at best. I hope a lot more people would be brave enough to try it out as well. :)

Javier Carol @ US HealthWorks