3 questions for an acupuncturist

How can athletes benefit most from acupuncture?

They can expect relief from exercise-induced pain and soreness, increased range of motion, and improved muscle function. I regularly work with all kinds of athletes because the style of acupuncture I use in my practice is trigger point, myofascial release work. I find tight, tender muscle fibers and release these areas by gently tapping them with the needle, so that the muscle lengthens back out to its normal size.

Afterwards, stretching, foam rolling, and massage can be so much more effective and enjoyable. In my 17 years of practicing acupuncture, I have found nothing as powerful for getting rid of movement-inhibiting tightness/knots and relieving pain. What's more, the nervous system responds by relaxing and the patient feels calm and clear.

Are there other forms of acupuncture that people should know about?

In Chinese medicine it is said that ‘heat creates movement and movement moves pain.’ We use heat therapy in many forms. For one, we burn a substance called moxa, dried mugwort (a plant), either on the end of a needle, directly on the patients skin, or over the body from a stick that looks like a cigar. The deeply penetrating heat creates the flow of energy, warms a cold body, and tonifies the system.

We also use heat lamps, infrared heat, hot packs, warming liniments (a liquid or lotion usually made with oil) and polstices (a soft, moist mass of plant material or flour held in place with a cloth). In my practice, I often use hot stones along the body’s channels or meridians (where energy is said to flow) to warm the muscles and help release tightness and pain.

What is your response to those who say acupuncture’s effectiveness boils down to a placebo effect?

The first thing I say is, ‘who cares?’ As long as people feel better, that’s all that matters. And there is a lot of truth to that. In Chinese medicine, the body, mind, and spirit are part of one system. If you change the mind, you see the physical improvements.

It’s admittedly difficult to do a typical double-blind study on the effects of acupuncture using a placebo group. (Although acupuncture isn’t painful, one would know if needles were being inserted.) However, in animal studies, their symptoms do improve with acupuncture. For example, the practice is routinely used for racehorses to free pain and increase performance, just like in their human counterparts—athletes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.