Acupuncture is one treatment method that is regularly used by Physiotherapists to improve a wide range of conditions – and although it has been around for thousands of years, it is only relatively recently that clinical studies have actually proved its effectiveness in getting people better.
Every year, the BAcC (British Acupuncture Council) holds Acupuncture Awareness Week. This year it is during 7th-13th March and the focus is on Sport.
Athletes are always looking for the edge that will allow them to increase their performance – whether compared to other people (hence the popularity of races and Strava!), or themselves (chasing new PBs, longer distances, higher intensities).
Thanks to the wonder of British Cycling and Team Sky, we all know the concept of marginal gains: this philosophy naturally encourages you to look for extra small ways to improve that others hadn’t considered, and they all contribute to an improvement in performance. With acupuncture, this generated a question: does it have a place for the non-injured athlete – as a method of performance enhancement, rather than just injury-fixing?
There have been lots of studies done, and so we’ve pulled out some interesting insights from them for you:
Strength, Power and Plyometrics
Acupuncture has been shown to give improvements in muscle strength and power – so if you’re a sprinter, play squash, or body-build, then it’s easy to see how this would be a good thing for you.
It gets more interesting when you think about the buzz around endurance athletes doing plyometric exercises to balance the pure endurance-element of their training. Plyometrics is basically power and strength training, so I think that there is a really good case for those who ‘go long’ to see acupuncture as a relevant part of their tool kit too.
Heart Rate and Blood Pressure
That said, acupuncture hasn’t been shown to have a direct improvement on aerobic performance (exercising with oxygen, ie endurance activities), but it does have benefits for both blood pressure and the heart rate. If you train by heart rate, this would be pretty easy for you to judge the effects for yourself.
There were some interesting studies on whether acupuncture improved flexibility – they tended to concentrate on one joint per study, but all showed significant improvements compared to non-acupuncture treatment. So if you know that you’re particularly un-bendy and it’s affecting your bike-fit for example, this could be something that is worth chatting to your Physio about.
There were a couple of preliminary studies that showed that acupuncture could reduce muscle spasm and perceived pain levels – so if you’re trying to keep yourself in once piece for an A-race, then it may help you with injury-management (like Jess Ennis has been doing with her heel for the last year). As a Physio, I need to say that it is important that you then allow the time to cure the injury properly once it is completed though!
All of the studies I read showed that a course of acupuncture (usually between 4 and 6 sessions) was the most effective, and that single sessions on their own had much reduced effects – and this is in keeping with the research that the NHS recommend for back pain and similar.
As is often the case, these studies mostly recommend further research that is more specific and will give concrete conclusions – but if you want to get ahead of the crowd, then I suggest that you book course of sessions and find out how well it works for you!