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Sports Injuries

Our article from the Dec 2014 issue of Essential Living Maine Magazine:

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Acute Musculoskeletal Injuries:
Faster Healing, Better Outcomes

Let’s consider a case together.  A middle-aged man walks into my office, barely upright.  His back is in acute spasm, his story common: “I was totally fine and then all of the sudden, wham!  All I did was reach down to pick up the newspaper!”  I make him as comfortable as possible, insert 2-3 needles into one of his hands, perhaps an additional one or two in his scalp and another above his upper lip.  I ask him to walk around a bit as best he can, and to circle his hips, creating gentle movement in his low back.  I stimulate the needles as he does so.  Several minutes later, he’s standing straight and the pain is nearly gone.  He thinks I’m a Jedi.

Or this one: a 32 year-old woman with a sprained ankle from an early morning Cross Fit training.  It seemed minor at first and she dismissed it—just a dull ache from having landed funny while jumping.  As the day progressed, however, the pain and swelling steadily increased until she could barely walk without assistance.  I needled some tender points in her opposite wrist, did an in-and-out needle technique on her swollen ankle, and within 5 minutes her pain had dropped from a 7 out of 10 down to a 2.  She was able to walk out of the clinic unaided and drive herself home.  She called me a magician.

I’m not a magician (nor a Jedi, though I don’t mind the designation), and acupuncture isn’t magic.  Far from it.  Acupuncture and Chinese medicine (a comprehensive system of which acupuncture is a single tool) is a science.  It’s a science based upon acute observations of the natural world and the human’s place within that world.  These observations weren’t made by just a few people or a small group of “believers,” nor were they made over the course of just a few decades or even just a few centuries.  Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is based on the research, scholarship, debate, and practical experience of millions of people over the course of two millennia.  It’s an elegant, sophisticated system of medicine that is clinically effective.

So effective, sometimes, that it’s almost like magic.  And this is never more true than in the context of acute musculo-skeletal and sports injuries, where the immediate efficacy of acupuncture really shines.

The twin disciplines of fighting and healing have long been linked in Chinese medicine.  Chinese martial and medical history is rich with stories of famous warriors who could take you down with the precise strike of a single acupuncture point, then compassionately set your broken bones and apply a potent herbal poultice to expedite their mending.  My office is much less dramatic; my warriors, weekend warriors.  However, the goal of every athlete and active person, ancient or modern, has always been to get back to the activities they love as quickly as possible.  Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help you do just that.

The approach to treating sports injuries with Chinese medicine differs from that of Western medicine in a few important ways.  You’re probably familiar with the Western acute inflammation adage, RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. 

Rest is obvious.  You must take the time to heal.

Elevation is helpful as well; raising the injured part above the area of the heart allows gravity to assist in draining excess fluid.

Compression we’re less keen on than our western counterparts.  Compression limits swelling, but it also limits circulation through the injured area, increases stagnation of blood and fluids above and below the injury, and ultimately leads to a slower recovery.

And then there’s Ice.  We can summarize Chinese medicine’s view of Ice this way: Ice is for dead people.  Ice reduces the initial swelling and inflammation of an acute injury and dulls the pain, but it does so at a cost.  Contracting the local blood vessels by freezing them inhibits normal circulation—acutely and down the road. To illustrate, close your eyes and imagine going outside on a cold winter’s day, without a coat.  (Or with a coat.  We are in Maine, after all.)  You can feel how your body literally draws into itself when exposed to the cold.  Any athlete knows how much harder it is to stretch and warm up in cold weather.  Icing an injured area is no different.  Static blood and fluids congeal, contract, and harden with icing, making them harder or impossible to disperse later. This can lead to long-term residual pain and eventually arthritis in the affected area.  Those old injuries that hurt in cold, rainy weather?  Ice may be part of the culprit.

The good news is that with Chinese medicine we can get the benefits of ice without the cost by employing alternative techniques that reduce swelling and inflammation while restoring normal circulation quickly.  These include:

1.     Acupuncture: inserting hair-thin needles into specific points that move energy, stop pain, and stimulate circulation.

2.     Cupping: a type of physical medicine (suction, primarily), often paired with needling techniques on the local area to literally draw out and disperse blood and fluid that is coagulating and blocking normal circulation.

3.     Massage: with liniments containing herbs that penetrate the skin to move the blood, reduce inflammation, and stop pain.

4.     Herbal poultices and plasters: applied topically to reduce inflammation and stimulate circulation, helping torn muscles and tendons to heal.

5.     Herbal internal medicine: pills or powders taken internally to promote blood circulation and prevent blood from stagnating further.

If you don’t have access to acupuncture or Chinese medicine and these ice alternatives, try using ice only 10 minutes out of every hour.  This will reduce the swelling but minimize side effects

For severe injuries, it’s of course always important to visit your Western doctor, get imaging (x-ray, MRI) as necessary, and confirm or rule out fractures or serious ligament or tendon injuries.  Western diagnosis and treatment are important in these cases, but once you’ve got your diagnosis, acupuncture and Chinese medicine are still very much indicated and will expedite your recovery.  It’s great to include alongside your physical therapy, chiropractic, or other relevant care.  The same is true in the event that surgery is required: properly prescribed acupuncture and Chinese herbs before and after surgery can significantly increase positive outcomes and decrease recovery times.  We have both topical and internal medicines that can stop bleeding immediately, ease pain, and knit broken bones.  I’ve known multiple patients whose Western doctors were astonished at how quickly and strongly their broken bones healed.  The secret?  They took bone-kitting herbal formulations during the healing process.

I started off our discussion with acute back spasm and an ankle sprain because these are probably the two most common acute injuries I see in my office.  Ankle sprains can happen all too  easily, whether you’re trailing running or crossing an uneven street downtown.  A badly sprained ankle can be extraordinarily painful and slow to heal.  Acupuncture can reduce the pain and swelling dramatically in a matter of minutes, and the use of topical and internal medicine will speed recovery time and facilitate a full recovery in even the most severe sprains.  Acupuncturists also have a different perspective on your health, more broadly, and may be able to identify constitutional, dietary, or lifestyle factors inhibiting your recovery that other health care practitioners would miss.

Other acute musculo-skeletal conditions for which you might seek out acupuncture and Chinese medicine include the following:

Back sprain/strain—lower or upper
Back—herniated disc
Elbow sprain/strain
Eye—contusion (black eye)
Foot pain
Groin muscle—pulled/strained
Knee—pain, torn ligament, torn meniscus
Muscle cramps/spasms
Neck strain/sprain
Shoulder—rotator cuff tear

Whether your injury is minor or so severe it requires hospitalization, Chinese medicine advocates for immediate treatment.  Many of us take a “wait and see” attitude with injuries, assuming they’ll get better on their own.  Sometimes they do, but consider your knee pain that flares in cold damp weather.  Is it related to that skiing injury from when you were 20 that “got better on its own?”  Minor problems addressed promptly are less likely to develop into larger problems or chronic conditions.

In closing, whatever the injury, expedite recovery without drugs and reduce the need for surgery with Chinese medicine.  Use it alone or in conjunction with Western medicine for more serious injuries.  Find a practitioner and get started today.


Alexa Gilmore is a board-certified acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practicing Chinese medicine at ATX Acupuncture in Portland, ME.  Alexa is also a manual therapist with years of clinical experience using deep myofascial techniques and CranioSacral Therapy to resolve a wide variety of acute and chronic musculo-skeletal issues.  She has a deep affinity for working with acute and chronic pain conditions, and is happy to be partnered with the Portland Ballet as the company acupuncturist.




Alexa Gilmore

Phone (207) 756-4301

Fax (866) 566-0298

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Sports Injuries - ATX Acupuncture in Portland, ME