How Does Acupuncture Work for Sports Injuries?

Breeze Academy February 7, 2022
acupuncture for sports injuries

Acupuncture is reported to work on a number of different injuries and musculoskeletal conditions, but what about sports injuries? Musculoskeletal injuries make up the bulk of all sports injuries (1), but does it matter how they are acquired? In this article we look into how acupuncture works for sports injuries, and which injuries acupuncture can help with specifically. 

So, how does acupuncture work for sports injuries? Acupuncture has three key benefits for athletes; pain relief, inflammation reduction, and trigger point release. Studies suggest that this may be a result of acupuncture promoting cellular function which, in turn, improves the repair of soft tissue post-injury. 

Read on to learn more about how acupuncture works for sports injuries. 

Can Acupuncture Work with Sports Injuries?

According to numerous studies(1, 2, 3, 4, 5), acupuncture can offer a great deal of benefits to athletes with sports injuries, as most sports injuries tend to be musculoskeletal in nature (1), to which acupuncture is thought to work well for musculoskeletal conditions(1). 

What’s more, acupuncture provides a non-invasive, non-medicative method for treating sports injuries that will not take an athlete out of practice or competition for prolonged periods of time, does not typically produce major side effects, and will not see them banned for use of controlled substances(1), as set by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This suggests that acupuncture is, in fact, a suitable treatment for sports injuries, but how does it work?

How Does Acupuncture Work for Sports Injuries?

The exact nature of how acupuncture works differs from study to study, and will depend on whether or not you’re considering TCM acupuncture. However, some studies (1) agree that, from a Western perspective, acupuncture works by increasing both endorphin and serotonin levels in the blood, causing analgesia, sedation and a recovery in motor functions. 

Further to this, other studies (1, 2) report that acupuncture increases blood vessel dilation and improved blood flow, which will help to deliver oxygen and essential nutrients to the injured area, helping it to recover faster. 

There is also reason to believe that combining acupuncture with other suitable therapies, such as massage therapy, can help to enhance the benefits of each individual treatment, allowing athletes to get back on their feet quicker. 

One study (1) reported on the use of acupuncture combined with other interventions for the treatment of patellar tendinopathy. Where acupuncture and deep tissue massage were combined, pain reduced from 6/10 to 4/10, and when trigger point acupuncture was combined with weight training and stretches, pain reduced further to 3/10. 

Benefits of Acupuncture for Athletes

Whilst acupuncture has the potential to deliver a number of benefits for athletes, the three key benefits received by athletes are pain relief, reduced inflammation, and trigger point relief. These benefits help athletes to get back on their feet quickly and minimise their downtime as a result of injury. 

Pain Relief

When placed around the injured area, acupuncture needles provide minor trauma to the skin, which stimulates the production of pain-relieving chemicals, such as endorphins, at the point of injury, in the brain, and in the spinal cord(1). This doesn’t necessarily treat the condition, but does reduce the level of perceived pain. 

Reduced Inflammation

The insertion of needles into the injured area also helps to reduce inflammation by releasing chemicals that cause blood vessel dilation, and improved blood flow(1). 

Trigger Point Release

Acupuncture can also help to relieve pain where athletes have tight muscles that may impact their range of motion. This is typically caused by the over-contraction of a small number of muscle fibres in one region. Placing needles into these trigger points disrupts the contractions, encouraging the muscle to relax(1). What’s more, the improved blood flow and delivery of oxygen, as previously mentioned, will further help the muscles to relax. 

What Injuries Does Acupuncture Help?

We’ve already mentioned that musculoskeletal injuries make up the majority of all sports injuries, but within that, chronic injuries such as tendinopathies account for 30-50% of all sports injuries (1). 

Below, we outline some of the common injuries that acupuncture has been reported to help with.

Is Acupuncture Good for Soft Tissue Damage?

The results of a 2003 study suggest that in relation to athletes, acupuncture may offer either long-term improvements to symptoms of soft tissue damage, or a complete resolution. 

This study discusses the use of acupuncture on soft tissue disorders and reported that out of 201 patients, 6% saw minimal improvement, 33% saw remarkable improvement, and 59% saw clinical resolution. 

Is Acupuncture Good for a Pulled Muscle?

Various articles suggest that acupuncture may be beneficial for pulled muscles or strains, trigger points, and DOMS.

With regards to pulled muscles, specifically, one article (1) discusses the effects of warming-promotion acupuncture, and how such methods are superior to that of routine acupuncture. Their study reported a 65% efficacy rate, vs 40% from routine acupuncture. 

However, other studies have shown that routine acupuncture can work for both trigger points (1) and DOMS (1). Acupuncture works to relax tense muscles, and also aids by improving circulation, meaning that oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the injured muscles more effectively, helping the muscle to heal.

Does Acupuncture Work for Dislocation?

Common symptoms of dislocation include intense pain, inability to move, numbness of the arm, weakness, swelling and a visibly out of place joint. Of course, a dislocation still requires medical attention to relocate the dislocated joint, however, acupuncture may help to reduce the symptoms.

The increased blood flow and improved circulation as a result of acupuncture treatment can work to reduce inflammation (aiding the swelling), reduce pain, improve range of motion, and strengthen the immune system (1).

Can Acupuncture Help with a Torn Tendon?

Despite tendinopathies accounting for 30-50% of all sports injuries, various studies (1, 2) have concluded that acupuncture may offer pain relief and improve activity levels in cases of torn tendons and other tendinopathy conditions. 

Other Injuries:

  • Chronic ankle pain and ligament sprains (1)
  • Acute low back pain (1)
  • Plantar Fasciitis (1)
  • Overuse injuries (1)

Final Thoughts

Various studies show that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for sports injuries, particularly for professional athletes that must be wary of medications and downtime. 

Acupuncture shows promise in relieving pain, reducing inflammation, and relieving trigger points in particular, largely as a result of improved circulation and the release of various natural chemicals. However, researchers agree that further research is required on the topic. 

What’s more, research has suggested that combining acupuncture with other interventions, such as sports massage, physiotherapy, and strength training, can work to enhance benefits without the need for medication or treatments that may put athletes out of action for long periods of time. 

If you are a medical professional, Breeze Academy offers a range of acupuncture CPD courses that will help you to expand your practice offerings and offer your clients new solutions to their sports injuries. Take a look at our foundation level acupuncture course to get started or, if you’re looking for more advanced courses, try our acupuncture in sport course.

Don't miss out, stay updated

We'll email you about new courses and discounts