Q / "What exactly is acupuncture, and what are its benefits in terms of rehabilitation and performance?"
A / Acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine needles into the body for therapeutic benefit. The two most common forms of this are the acupuncture used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western Medical Acupuncture (WMA). Both types explain how acupuncture works in very different ways, despite often being very similar in how they are practiced. TCM explains the effect of acupuncture as the balancing of Qi (pronounced 'chi') - an invisible life force that some believe runs within us. WMA on the other hand explains its effects in terms of physiological and biochemical changes within the body, in line with modern scientific knowledge.
Acupuncture is useful in the treatment of a wide range of injuries that are common amongst multisport athletes, including muscular overuse injuries, tendinopathies, joint and ligament sprains as well as conditions such as osteoarthritis. Because of its wide ranging effects it can be useful for both acute and chronic injuries.
Acupuncture close to the injury site releases hormones that increase blood flow. This improves the rate of healing in chronic and sub-acute injuries by increasing the amount of oxygen and other nutrients getting to the area. Various other substances such as adrenaline are also released which provide a pain relieving effect. This may mean that you can avoid taking pain killers such as ibuprofen, which commonly cause unwanted side effects. It is often surprising to people that acupuncture is actually safer than taking medications like ibuprofen.
A common after effect of acupuncture treatment is a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation which is generally beneficial to the often negative outlook of the injured athlete.
Beyond injury rehabilitation, acupuncture is now recognized in Western Medicine as an evidence based treatment for conditions such as migraine (meaning that its use has a solid medical research backing). This is something that can clearly affect performance, consistency, recovery and the overall mental state of sufferers. Again a benefit of acupuncture here is the potential to avoid the associated side effects of strong pain killers and anti-depressant drugs that are often prescribed.
Some research even shows that pre-exercise stimulation of acupuncture points can have a direct performance enhancing effect, with one study showing an improvement of over 4 seconds in a 1km road running time trial. Research has also shown improved recovery rates between training sessions - although the reasons why are not entirely understood. With regard to this, WADA do not consider acupuncture as performance enhancing as such but their guidelines are fairly vague on pre-competition use.