Athletes are always looking for an edge to improve their sports performance. When I was a student-athlete, I worked out, ate, slept, studied, and did just about everything I could to become the best baseball player I could be. I know many athletes today feel the same.
With recent advances in technology and new research, the topics of sports performance, recovery, and rehabilitation have made leaps and bounds in recent years. Both new machines and ancient practices are being used by athletes to enhance their abilities as an athlete. One of those ancient yet hot new trends is in the practice of acupuncture.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient practice of Chinese medicine. It is a methodology that inserts very thin needles through the skin at strategic points in the body. These specific points are along what is called meridian lines. The theory is that by placing needles along these lines, energy balances are restored, leading to lower stress, reduced pain, and better health.
Acupuncture is not to be confused with dry needling, which you may have also heard of. Dry needling uses the same needles and can be used to deliver the same benefits that acupuncture does. The difference between the two practices is needle placement. Acupuncture places needles along the above-mentioned meridian lines. Dry needling takes a broader approach, inserting the needles wherever the practitioner feels is best based on musculoskeletal anatomy.
Both practices require a professional. When done by a licensed or certified professional, both acupuncture and dry needling are considered safe and typically painless. The research cited in this article examined acupuncture specifically, so we will focus on that particular practice.
Does Acupuncture Enhance Sports Performance?
Athletic performance enhancements can appear in a variety of ways. Outside of good old strength and conditioning, some drugs and supplements can make your muscles bigger, stronger, and more powerful. Other drugs and supplements can give you greater endurance and help the body recover faster. Researchers in Australia and South Korea aimed to see if acupuncture could do any of those things, giving athletes a performance-enhancing advantage.
Previous research seemed to indicate that acupuncture can, in fact, improve muscular strength and power. However, science is never complete. The Australian researchers wanted to test this theory with a control group. They found that both the control and experimental groups demonstrated similar results. The control group received the needles outside the meridian lines that acupuncturists claim are vital to the treatment. This, unfortunately, indicates a placebo effect, nothing more than a mental trick.
In fact, new research also shows that acupuncture can be detrimental to muscular performance, which makes sense. The whole idea behind the needles is to place pressure on the muscle fibers they penetrate. After a few minutes, this causes the penetrated muscles to relax. This relaxation can reduce stress, increase flexibility, increase blood flow to the area, and create a calmer state of mind. This, of course, is great for your health, aligning with the health claims of both acupuncture and dry needling.
However, this relaxation isn’t a great idea for sports performance. If you are preparing for a game, you need to be fired up. Having your game face on shouldn’t be relaxing or stress-free. The muscles need to be strong and firm, not relaxed.
This supports new research that says acupuncture can be detrimental to sports performance, at least on game day. Not on game day; that’s a different story.
Yes, Acupuncture CAN Improve Sports Performance
Remember, I gave several examples of performance enhancement. Among those was recovery. Research shows that acupuncture increases blood flow to the area and reduces stress. This creates a more optimal environment for recovery.
Without question, acupuncture can enhance recovery in the whole body or one specific area in particular. Athletes looking to speed up recovery to prepare for a game or next practice can look at acupuncture to help. Being more suited for recovery, athletes should look at acupuncture only on non-game or practice days.
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