Training & Rehab
How acupuncture can benefit female athletes
by Lily Lai, PhD
Acupuncture is one of the most popular types of complementary medicine that athletes use to support themselves and has a whole-systems approach to health. This means that the support it provides may be physical in terms of improving endurance, treating or preventing injury and reducing pain, but it can also be mental support in terms of reducing anxiety, managing psychological distress, improving focus and improving sleep quality. For female athletes, acupuncture has additional benefits such as regulating menstrual cycles and reducing symptoms that can affect performance such period pain, menstrual migraines, bloating and pre-menstrual tension.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been practiced in Asia for more than 2000 years and has a deep and rich medical history of treating injuries amongst Chinese martial artists. In Chinese medicine, health is seen to be based on the balance and flow of Qi, or energy, and on the appropriate regulation between energies in the body called Yin and Yang. Chinese medicine theory holds that where there is imbalance, illness or pain results and addressing this imbalance issue is key to alleviating health problems. In terms of acupuncture, the placement of needles at specific acupuncture points on the body influences the body’s Qi and addresses certain imbalances. It’s restoring this balance that then restores health in the individual.
How is acupuncture carried out and is it safe?
Acupuncturists use sterile, single-use, disposable needles during treatments and registered acupuncturists in the UK are required to have in-depth knowledge of biomedicine in order to fully understand how best to support your health.
When practiced by fully trained professionals, acupuncture is extremely safe and adverse effects are uncommon. Serious complications are rare, taking place in less than 0.01% of treatments – when they do occur, they are usually related to inadequate training. Always seek treatment from a traditional acupuncturist who’s trained for a minimum of three years and who’s registered with the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine or the British Acupuncture Council.
How does acupuncture work from a scientific perspective?
Acupuncture has been shown to support the body’s health in a variety of ways using modern technology such as functional MRI and PET studies. One key mechanism is acupuncture’s ability to stimulate sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles. It stimulates the nervous system and causes the body to produce and release natural neurochemicals such as endorphins and serotonin which promote cell healing, reduce inflammation, increase expression of opioid receptors and reduce pain. Studies have also shown acupuncture to increase local microcirculation and stimulate the release of adenosine, a powerful analgesic agent, and through these mechanisms it can help reduce pain, reduce swelling, improve muscle stiffness and improve joint mobility. Besides these mechanisms, acupuncture also has considerable influence on the way our brain processes pain signals. For example, it reduces activation of certain areas of the brain involved in processing pain and can influence pain signals entering the brain, thereby improving the body’s ability to better cope with pain.
How many sessions will I need?
For acute injuries, 1-2 sessions of acupuncture are usually sufficient to experience symptomatic relief. For longstanding or more severe injuries, a course of 12 treatments may be recommended. Athletes are increasingly using acupuncture regularly as a means of preventing injury or to improve a certain aspect of their training. So whilst symptomatic treatment is still very popular, acupuncture is gradually becoming part of an individual’s programme of treatments for health maintenance and injury prevention.
For mental health and wellbeing, individuals usually find the most benefit from regular weekly sessions of acupuncture for the first 4-6 weeks before reducing the frequency of sessions to once a fortnight or once a month.
For women’s health issues such as period pain and migraines, acupuncture is usually carried out at least once a month, depending on the severity of the symptom. These sessions are usually planned around the time of your monthly cycle for optimal effectiveness – for example, treatment is typically recommended a week before your period is due if you usually experience period pain.
Is acupuncture treatment for women and men different?
It depends! Women and men have different dominant energies and whilst this can mean different imbalances in the body according to Chinese medicine, it doesn’t always mean you need different acupuncture points for a specific injury. However, what makes acupuncture different between men and women is that your acupuncturist will typically ask about other aspects of your health. For women this will usually include finding out where you are in your menstrual cycle to see if any hormonal imbalances need to be catered for in your session. Whilst your injury is always going to be the primary concern within a treatment, traditional acupuncturists take a broader view and look at what else is happening so that they can better support your recovery.
What other treatments are commonly used alongside acupuncture amongst athletes?
Acupuncture is typically used as part of a wider package of Chinese medicine treatments such as fire cupping, external herbal compresses or herbal ointments such as Dit Da Jow liniment which is particularly well known amongst Shaolin kungfu enthusiasts!
Fire cupping involves the suction of a glass cup, performed by creating a vacuum with a flame before being placed on certain acupuncture points, or tension points, on the body. This helps to increase local blood supply to the muscles and skin and is a great form of myofascial release.
Herbal compresses and herbal ointments contain blends of Chinese herbs such as safflower, frankincense, mountain peony and myrrh which are known to reduce pain, improve circulation and reduce bruising and swelling. The famous Dit Da Jow liniment (also known as Fall Hit Wine) can be used for muscle or ligament tears, injuries to tendons, bruises and for joint pain and is usually regarded as a must-have in every martial artists’ first aid toolkit!
In summary, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine has been used in China for centuries in the treatment of injuries and in injury prevention and is becoming an increasingly popular way of addressing health issues using a whole-systems approach. For information about your specific needs, find a registered practitioner in your local area or better still, ask for a recommendation from your networks!
Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine
British Acupuncture Council
WHO IS LILY LAI
Lily is an acupuncturist and specialist in Chinese herbal medicine and completed a PhD in using Chinese herbs for women’s health at the University of Southampton. Her research focused on using herbs in primary medical care for polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal condition that typically affects fertility, metabolism and weight. She has over 15 years’ of clinical experience and now combines her clinical practice with both research and teaching, specialising in supporting women with natural ways of managing their hormonal, metabolic and reproductive health.
See her website here.