Athletes train at competitive levels, withstanding heavy physical demands on their body on a daily basis, which inevitably brings pain and injury. When those injuries happen, athletes look for the best treatments to restore their bodies to competitive form as fast as possible.
In recent years, more and more athletes are turning to alternative options such as acupuncture, cupping, massage therapy and chiropractic services to treat their injuries.
We sat down with three experts to gather some insights on the usage and benefits of alternative medicine. First, we chatted with NFL Veteran Joe Anderson, who has been using alternative medicine options like cupping, acupuncture, and chiropractic services throughout his career to help him through injuries.
How long have you been using alternative medicine as a form of treatment for injuries?
I've been using these methods for about five years so far.
Which methods do you use most often and which do you find to be the most effective?
I’m a fan of acupuncture and the Graston technique because both methods reach places that hands-on work simply don't get to. I love acupuncture the most. Recently, I had a sore Achilles heel and when I was able to get my calf muscles and the areas around my Achilles needled, the inflammation went away immediately. It really loosened up my muscles that were the cause of the pain. Graston (a form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization that enables clinicians to address scar tissue, fascial restrictions and range of motion), helps keep my muscles loose. I'm not a huge fan of stretching so this has become a go-to treatment for me.
How did you get introduced to alternative medicine options?
After I was injured with the Chicago Bears I began to get more in tune with my body because, as we know, the longer you can last on the field as an athlete the longer you can provide for your family. As NFL players say, "you can't make the club in the tub,” so body maintenance is a must for all athletes. Alternative medicine helps heal, it extends career length and is a great injury prevention method. I've experienced that it often captures little things and fixes them before they become the bigger problems. As an athlete who wants to remain very mobile later in life so I can play with my kids, and especially not wanting to have to be reliant on pain medication, I’m always looking for the natural route.
Both acupuncture and cupping are ancient methods, why do you think they are only recently growing in awareness and popularity?
I honestly believe that because more athletes are doing it, more people are being exposed to it, so they are gaining visibility. Both methods are really great for all types of people, not just athletes. As an ancient practice acupuncture may seem odd to some people, but it's much better to have a clinician well versed in these alternative methods treating you than taking different types of medications. The relief I’ve experienced with both methods are truly amazing. I can say from much experience, that it has helped keep me function at a high level.
We know that injuries amongst professional athletes often lead to early retirement. Did these alternative medicine practices help you recover easier or faster from your sports-related injuries?
Absolutely! I think we're —athletes and people in general—are so used to surgeons defaulting to prescribing pain medication and physical therapy, and not addressing the long-term healing. I don't think they always realize how much of a roll these methods play in our lives as athletes. There was a time when my Achilles hurt so bad that I couldn't even walk, and rather than going straight to surgery, I chose acupuncture and it fixed the problem immediately. That was over two years ago and I still haven't had any problems with it since. That experience alone says a lot about these types of methods.
Have you seen an increase over the years in the use of alternative medicine in professional athletes?
For sure. I have seen an increase in almost every athlete across all sports starting to get interested in these methods. I see the best of the best, people at the top of their game using alternative medicine options. It's all about doing all you can naturally to stay healthy.
You're known for being outspoken about fitness and staying in shape, would you recommend alternative medicine options to other athletes or even non-athletes trying to get their fitness routine going?
I highly recommend it, it just helps create a healthier lifestyle that is free of pain. It's a fact of life, as we get older our bodies start to fall apart and we have to find smart ways to keep things together just a little bit longer. And in football terms, that means a little longer than the next guy!
Next, we chatted with Dr. Melissa S. Block, who serves as an Exercise Physiologist in our Providence Saint Joseph facility. We asked her to share her thoughts on using acupuncture as a form of treatment. Below are some insights she shared about alternative medicine as a treatment for injuries.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine enhances the recuperative power of the body, promotes natural healing and regulates the human immune system. Nationally, acupuncture is attaining more credibility and as a result so is the interest in the Western medical field. Many randomized clinical trials are being done to support the effectiveness of the medicine. The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture as an effective way to treat pain, including osteoarthritis, chronic knee pain, shoulder pain and neck pain.
When athletes injure themselves, the first thing that happens is the onset of pain, followed by swelling and inflammation. This sequence is the body's first line of defense, and while each injury is different when it comes to treatment, acupuncture and Chinese medicine offer a noninvasive and effective start to combat the injury. By inserting tiny needles into key areas of the body, we are able to stimulate the nervous system, telling the brain to release hormones which reduce pain and swelling. In an acute case, the body may be in shock and acupuncture helps remind the body to focus its efforts on the injury.
Additionally, acupuncture is used to treat a wider variety of ailments including but not limited to:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Acute/chronic pain
- Frozen shoulder
- Morning sickness
- Nausea due to chemotherapy
- Common cold
Finally, we chatted with Scott Agbincola, a physical therapist in the performance therapy program at Providence Saint John's Health Center. He is an expert in the field of cupping and had these thoughts to share on the topic.
Cupping has been around since ancient times and has been used as a treatment by many cultures. Traditionally, cups are placed on the skin and then heated to create a vacuum within. This vacuum results in localized pulling up of the skin, which is the desired therapeutic effect. In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is believed to increase the flow of Qi and fluids in the body and is used to treat multiple conditions. Negative pressure kits including cups that attach to a hand-held pump can now be used in the physical therapy clinic to create the vacuum required, making treatment set-up easy and convenient.
Today, manual therapists have combined the traditional use of cup therapy with an understanding of functional anatomy and movement, to incorporate manual therapy and function. New cupping techniques have developed that differ from the traditional use. Rather than keeping the cups static, the therapist may glide the cups over the skin to enhance treatment, or the individual may be asked to provide a range of motion or functional movement pattern while the cups are on.
In physical therapy, cupping is often referred to as myofascial decompression. Whereas most manual therapy techniques like massage and joint mobilization involve compression, cupping can be used to pull up on the skin, fascia, or muscle; creating a distraction or decompression of the tissue layers. Areas to target for myofascial decompression include restrictive changes of the connective tissue, trigger points, fascial restrictions, scar adhesions and tight muscle groups due to faulty postures. Decompression of the tissues can increase blood flow and nutrient exchange, decrease pain, and alleviate compressive forces on the tissues. Addressing fascial restrictions and scar tissue while coupling the treatment with range of motion or functional movement patterns can promote and reinforce efficient movement.
Cupping is an effective adjunct to a comprehensive physical therapy program. It is most effective when reinforced by neuromuscular re-education, therapeutic exercise, and functional training. Individuals with movement dysfunctions due to injury or trauma, post-operative status, poor posture, and faulty biomechanics may benefit from cupping. As a manual therapy technique, it can be used for multiple patient populations and not just reserved for elite athletes. After a thorough screen and evaluation, your clinician will determine if cupping is appropriate for you and what techniques might benefit you the most.
Have you tried acupuncture, cupping or any other alternative therapy to treat your injuries? We'd love to hear your story. Leave us a comment below.