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What Is Sports Acupuncture?
Sports acupuncture is a non-defined general term used by many practitioners who apply acupuncture to treat activity or sports-related injuries.
The principle behind this term is based solely on the practitioner’s own experience in either “sports” or “acupuncture.” Currently, there is no regulatory board with set guidelines defining the term, nor is there a governing body regulating practitioners who employ this term as a way to describe their services and area of specialty.
The Synthesis of TCM & Sports Medicine
In TCM theory, acupuncture can inherently treat pain through removing obstructions from the channels and collaterals and treating underlying disharmonies. In addition, acupuncture has been used since its inception in the treatment of injuries and pain without applying any specific “sports” lens.
It is only very recently that the brilliance of acupuncture in relieving pain and accelerating the healing process has been combined with modern sports medicine, generating an effective and unique system for treating injuries and pain.
Both traditional Chinese medicine and sports medicine are lifelong studies.
The student of TCM and the licensed practitioner who are motivated to undertake learning and mastering the tools of sports medicine, can glean techniques from both paradigms.
With respect to each medical framework, the goal is to synthesize these two systems, leading to a comprehensive assessment and treatment protocol. The ultimate aim of sports acupuncture should be to enhance the field of sports medicine with traditional Chinese medicine.
In practicing sports acupuncture, the TCM practitioner should never neglect the patient’s constitutional or zang fu differential diagnosis.
One of the many strengths of TCM is its ability to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems and, as a result, increase the patient’s health and their ability to handle inflammation.
Paying attention to the context of the injury, to the larger picture of the patient’s overall health, can most definitely make the difference between achieving lasting results and not achieving them. Do not make the mistake of assuming that all injuries can be treated solely as a localized problem. There are too many instances where the localized injury is merely the result of a complex combination of external and internal factors.
In other words, the localized injury will more times than not, have postural imbalances and a contributing organ dysfunction that are preventing proper healing. Moreover, it is a common clinical finding that a diseased organ can manifest pain and dysfunction in its channel, which is a foundational principle of TCM. Therefore, the practitioner should examine whether the localized injury has this relationship as a contributing factor.
To become proficient in sports acupuncture, the practitioner needs to recognize the importance of mastering not only TCM, but also sports medicine methods that can dramatically help direct the acupuncture treatment and improve outcomes.
Combining TCM & Sports Medicine Assessment Techniques
The assessment techniques of sports medicine are numerous and to become skillful at them is an enduring study. Understanding the depths of orthopedic evaluations, manual muscle testing, range of motion testing and postural analysis, to name a few, is paramount.
The TCM practitioner who aims to synthesize these methods with the channels systems (jingluo, jingjin) will gain incredible evaluative insight.
The importance of proper assessment, in both TCM and sports medicine, cannot be stressed enough. Remember that a good assessment will get you to a proper diagnosis, which then leads you to a more effective treatment plan.
A thorough assessment often represents the difference between good results and great results. It represents the difference between a practitioner who inserts needles into random ashi points hoping for the best and one who feels confident knowing that they are precisely addressing the injured tissue and the affected acupuncture channel(s), which will typically lead to better clinical outcomes.
Although framed in terms of Western biomedicine, outcomes from sports medicine assessment techniques offer much useful information to the working diagnosis of the TCM practitioner. These techniques can be used to identify the location of pain and injured tissue, which allows the practitioner to precisely target the affected acupuncture channel(s).
The intent of sports acupuncture, ideally, is to enable the practitioner to effectively combine and integrate the assessment techniques of TCM and sports medicine in order to create a comprehensive and focused treatment plan.
The sports acupuncture practitioner can learn to combine TCM and sports medicine assessment techniques to formulate a diagnosis of the patient and their injury.
Working from the diagnosis, it should be the intent of the practitioner to understand the TCM principles of treatment, such as rid obstructions from a particular channel, calm the spirit, ease pain, relax the sinews, warm cold and clear heat.
The practitioner must then determine the sports medicine treatment principles that need to be integrated into the TCM framework.
Examples of treatment principles in sports medicine are:
Manage bruising, swelling and inflammation
Reduce muscle spasm
Once the practitioner has determined and organized the specific treatment principles from both paradigms for treating a particular injury, an overall plan of action needs to be designed—this is the treatment plan.
The treatment plan should address issues such as:
How many treatments will the patient need?
How frequently do the treatments need to be administered?
What modalities will be used as part of the treatment?
What kind of follow-up might be necessary?
The practitioner then designs the treatment protocol, which entails selecting one or more treatment methods and the appropriate acupuncture points to successfully accomplish the treatment principles.
For example, in a case of thrower’s shoulder, the practitioner might choose a sinew channel treatment method in addition to utilizing points from the Heart and Small Intestine channels in order to balance the internal/external (biao li) channel relationships.
In another example, such as chronic tendinopathy in an aging athlete, the practitioner might choose the Huatuojiaji points and myotomal motor points as a treatment method in addition to using points and techniques that address the local qi and blood stagnation and cold.
Specializing in Sports Acupuncture
The acupuncturist, or the student of TCM, has the genius of this powerful medical system in their favor.
However, TCM graduate programs do not place much emphasis in the area of sports medicine and newly licensed acupuncturists interested in sports acupuncture must seek further education in this broad field.
Fortunately, in the past decade, a handful of post-graduate programs with varying levels of education have evolved offering training that can benefit the licensed acupuncturist.
The field of sports acupuncture is still in its infancy, and its potential is yet to be fully realized. Many creative and pioneering minds seek to contribute to sports acupuncture for the benefit of patients and athletes worldwide.
The effectiveness of sports acupuncture is beginning to be recognized and embraced by a wide range of professionals, who vary greatly in their application of this medicine.
For the TCM practitioner, continued research in the mechanisms of acupuncture, functional anatomy, and the complexity of the nervous system, to name a few, will no doubt fuel great discoveries and propel the sophistication of the sports acupuncture field.
The combination of TCM and sports medicine will continue to evolve for decades to come.
The SMAC program consists of 240 hours of advanced Sports Medicine AcupunctureⓇ training that includes many successful integrative Eastern and Western approaches and is designed to provide the highest level of instruction in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal pain.
The SMAC program continues to evolve and change with ongoing research and development, enhanced assessment and treatment techniques and tested applications for the clinical practitioner. AcuSport Education has also responded to the Covid pandemic by partnering with Net of Knowledge to create an enriching and dynamic online learning environment.
Brian Lau, AP, C.SMA is has been on the faculty of the Sports Medicine Acupuncture Certification since 2014, and also teaches foundation courses with AcuSport Education. Brian lives and practices in Tampa, FL where he owns and operates Ideal Balance: Center for Sports Medicine Acupuncture (www.ideal-balance.net). He blogs on anatomy and TCM at www.sinewchannels.com.
Matt Callison is the president of the Sports Medicine Acupuncture Certification program. He has been combining sports medicine and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for over 26 years. He is the author of the Motor Point and Acupuncture Meridians Chart, the Motor Point Index, The Sports Medicine Acupuncture textbook and many articles on the combination of sports medicine and TCM.