During Super Bowl week in 1986, Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was nursing a deep muscle bruise in his buttocks and demanded that a Japanese acupuncturist be flown to New Orleans to treat him. While fans and media thought it was just another goofy McMahon stunt, it seems he was on to something.
These days, dozens of NFL players — along with professional athletes in other sports and Olympians — rely on acupuncture to relieve pain, soreness and tight muscles. One NFL team had an acupuncturist on staff for the season, while a traveling acupuncturist treated dozens of players every week on teams throughout the league.
As a life-long bicyclist and swimmer, I know all about pain, soreness and tight muscles. If large guys playing a violent sport are benefiting from tiny needles, I figured it was worth trying. So I made an appointment with Galter LifeCenter certified acupuncturist and exercise physiologist Cliff Morland.
Though acupuncture’s been around for more than 5,000 years, its popularity in the U.S. has only grown among athletes, and the general public, in the past few decades.
Morland explained that during an acupuncture session, thin needles are inserted at various points to balance the body’s vital energy, or Qi (“chee”). The needles are thought to unblock painful disruptions or imbalances in the flow of energy.
Although many physicians coming from a Western perspective may not fully accept this belief in qi and meridians, many believe that the needles relieve pain by releasing endorphins, stimulating our natural painkillers and possibly by increasing blood flow.
Morland uses acupuncture to reduce inflammation and treat pain resulting from sports injuries or overuse, as well as headaches, back injuries (which Morland explained in a report on NorthSide Reaction), osteoarthritis and a number of other conditions.
After filling out a brief health history, I explained to Morland what was bothering me: an irritated left knee, tight quadriceps muscles, painful hamstrings and an irritated Achilles tendon.
Within the first few minutes of the session Morland painlessly inserted a few needles in key spots, including both my ears, one hand and along my left leg. After a few minutes, he used moxabustion — heat therapy that involves burning herbs near each needle point — to release and balance energy. He also applied electrical stimulation to gently enhance the effectiveness of the acupuncture.
After removing the needles, he massaged my left side. Since Morland is a certified personal trainer, we finish the session by discussing which muscles I needed to strengthen and stretch to keep pain at bay.
“Acupuncture helps you heal faster, but you should to do other things in conjunction with it, like stretching, ice, heat or exercise,” Morland said. “Corrective exercises are especially important with chronic sports injuries, which are often due to muscle imbalance.”
He explained that most people respond well to acupuncture and see results within a few treatments, and symptoms and pain tend to recede longer with each treatment.
As for me? I woke up the next morning and for a few blissful minutes, lay in bed, enjoying a perfectly pain-free state. No tiny aches or pains, no sore knee or tight, irritated hip and Achilles.
I went for a swim later that day to get a workout without ruining Morland’s work. The next day, after a hard bike ride, my knee was irritated (as usual) but I felt great otherwise. When I stretched and used the foam roller (to apply pressure to my tight quads and hamstrings), the pain quickly disappeared.
Maybe those football players really are on to something.