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Fact or fiction: Getting on point about acupuncture

Some insist it can relieve the pain associated with tight muscles and joints. Others are more skeptical. Can acupuncture work for you?

Acupuncture treatment needling

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medical care and an important part of traditional Chinese medicine with origins dating back thousands of years. While still less common in North America, it is becoming increasingly popular and is practiced by a growing number of chiropractors, physiotherapists and other health care professionals.

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Standard acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into the body at various points to stimulate the nerves and muscles. It is sometimes used in conjunction with heat, pressure or (laser) light therapy. Often used as an adjunct to other forms of treatment, acupuncture aims to relieve pain as well as treat a range of other conditions.

Scientific evidence including systematic reviews have generally returned mixed or inconsistent findings regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture and some suggest its effects are simply due to placebo. Regardless, acupuncture is generally considered safe when practiced by a trained professional using clean needle technique and single-use needles.

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Brittany Moran is a Toronto-based chiropractor as well as an elite marathon runner with a personal best of 2:47. She uses acupuncture as part of her practice and was quick to speak to the possible benefits it can have for runners.

“Acupuncture is a great tool and is something runners should definitely consider not only to help recover from injury but to keep moving and training as well,” she says. “When it comes to running injuries, it is best to be proactive rather than reactive. Fortunately, acupuncture can work for both.”

Moran mentions three main benefits that make acupuncture a useful tool for runners. It helps to both relax and loosen muscle tissue, which become tight from the stress of repetitive running. It also increases blood flow to stressed or damaged tissues, thus aiding the healing and recovery process. Finally, it stimulates the nervous system, “causing the nerves to fire,” and improves communication between the brain and the body.

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One particular advantage of acupuncture is that it is far more specific and localized than many other techniques. Needles are placed directly into the muscle(s) needing treatment and specifically into “neuro-reactive” sites which increases the affect. Moran suggests that acupuncture can be useful for treating most types of musculoskeletal issues including achilles tendonosis, plantar fasciitis, muscle strains, knee problems, back and neck pain and even headaches.

In terms of disadvantages, the most common treatment-related complaint is general soreness to the affected area, but this usually dissipates within a few hours. There is also a small chance of bruising and/or bleeding.

The needles used in acupuncture are all individually packaged, pre-sterilized and only used once so infection or complications are incredibly rare. They are also much smaller relative to medical needles. Some patients may experience a sympathetic response in which the body reacts to the application of needles with a pronounced (and somewhat painful) inflammatory response. If this happens, the needles are taken out immediately causing the symptoms to subside.

A lot of people ask if acupuncture hurts, and while the short answer is simply “no,” Moran describes the most typical patient response as “it feels weird.” Additionally, Moran also uses electrical stimulation of the needle in order to increase the effectiveness of treatment. The electrical current may cause muscles to ‘twitch’ or ‘pulse’ which while an unusual sensation, is entirely normal.

Acupuncture is not for everyone but should be considered as an effective supplemental tool for both staying healthy and treating injury. It is a highly specific and localized form of treatment that targets individual muscles and nerves and can help treat various musculoskeletal issues associated with running.