In athletics the difference between winning and losing may only be a fraction of a second of time. Because the stakes are often high all elite and professional athletes look for a “special something” that will give them the edge they need to win. Recent media reports have linked several professional sports figures to the possible use of performance enhancing drugs to improve athletic performance. While the use of these substances among elite or professional athletes is not new there is a newfound concern that teenage athletes are also turning to performance enhancing substances to make themselves bigger, stronger and faster even though the dangers of use are well documented. In an attempt to look at improving improve athletic performance without the use of drugs, researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada studied the potential benefits of acupuncture on human performance.
What was the purpose of this paper? The researchers from the University of Halifax have attempted to review the existing scientific literature to determine if acupuncture offers a viable non-drug solution to enhancing athletic performance. The authors first provided a brief description of the history and philosophy behind acupuncture. They then looked at the potential influence of acupuncture on strength, aerobic conditioning and flexibility. Finally, they posed questions for future research regarding the acupuncture/athletic performance connection.
What did the studies suggest? The review of the research literature showed promise but the results were mixed.
One study (Karvelas et al) did not find any change in heart rate or oxygen use efficiency with athletes performing continuous submaximal and maximal cycle exercise following one acupuncture treatment.
A second study (Ehrlic & Haber) found that the aerobic potential of the athletes they tested was increased following a five-week course of acupuncture treatment. This study also showed that the heart rates of the athletes treated with acupuncture were lower during submaximal and maximal levels of activity versus the control group.
Acupuncture was also shown to improve autonomic nervous system function on central cardiac function and peripheral circulation. These studies suggest that acupuncture improved athletic performance by decreasing heart rate and improving stroke volume (the ability of the heart to pump blood) which improved overall heart function. Peripheral blood vessels were found to have increased vasodilatation, which leads to increase blood flow during activity. ( Two separate studies Lee & Wong)
Acupuncture used to successfully treat muscular pain secondary to exercise. In two studies (Craig & Sternfield) runners who failed to respond to conventional treatment responded to acupuncture treatments.
Finally two studies (Batra & Marcus) demonstrated that flexibility and pain control were improved using acupuncture to treat athlete with neck muscles spasms (torticollis) and tendonitis of the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder.
What concerns and suggestions did the researchers have regarding the use of acupuncture with athletes?
The researchers were firm in pointing out that acupuncture might be considered only as an adjunct to a sports specific training regimen. Most of the research and treatment using acupuncture has centered on pain control and addiction. The authors state that the potential side effects from acupuncture were considered “few and mild” but may include dizziness, which potentially places an athlete at risk during activity. The authors suggested that additional studies that explored the effects of acupuncture on speed, endurance and plyometric training. Acupuncture is available from chiropractic, medical and osteopathic physicians in the United States that have received postgraduate training in acupuncture. In addition, non-physicians that have graduated from an accredited acupuncture college and have passed a national examination may also provide acupuncture depending upon the laws of your state.
Information for this segment from: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2001 15(2), 266-271. Acupuncture in Human Performance Pelham et al.