Acupuncture For Athletes: 7 Benefits + What To Expect

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Acupuncture can be a great way to increase circulation and support healthy healing in the body. For this reason, acupuncture for athletes can potentially help support workout recovery and injury rehabilitation.

But what are the benefits of acupuncture for athletes? What does acupuncture feel like?

In this guide, we will discuss the benefits of acupuncture for athletes, how acupuncture works, and what to expect during acupuncture. 

So, if you’ve been curious about trying acupuncture for sports performance and recovery, keep reading to learn more about acupuncture for athletes. 

We will cover: 

  • What Is Acupuncture?
  • How Does Acupuncture Work?
  • 7 Benefits of Acupuncture for Athletes
  • What to Expect During Acupuncture

Let’s dive in! 

Acupuncture needles.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine practice that uses thin needles inserted into specific areas of the body in order to help “unblock” the flow of energy and restore balance to the body.

Acupuncture is based on the idea that the energy, or qi, in the body flows through different meridians. Stress or other physical changes can cause disturbances or blockages in this flow of energy, which can then be stimulated and restored through the insertion of acupuncture needles. 

In this way, acupuncture is thought to increase both energy and relaxation by balancing and supporting the proper flow of qi through the body.

Acupuncture is used to treat various health issues, from everyday stress and muscle tension to specific issues such as infertility, migraines, inflammatory conditions, arthritis, and anxiety. Acupuncture can also be useful for athletes in terms of promoting recovery from workouts and treating injuries, and reducing muscle soreness.

An acupuncturist sticking a needle in a shoulder.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Although acupuncture has been around for centuries, with plenty of anecdotal and even scientific evidence showing that it works, researchers still aren’t entirely sure exactly how it works.

With that said, some of the primary theories regarding how acupuncture works include the following:

  • Acupuncture needle placement may help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to reduce breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

7 Benefits of Acupuncture for Athletes

There are several potential benefits of acupuncture for athletes, including the following:

Acupuncture needles in the back.

#1: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Reduce Muscle Soreness

Delayed-ones muscle soreness (DOMS) is one of the most frequent complaints among athletes following rigorous training plans. Exercise induces structural damage to your muscle fibers, which leads to an inflammatory process in order to repair injured tissue. This can lead to stiffness and muscle soreness after exercise.

One of the primary benefits of acupuncture for athletes is that it can potentially reduce muscle soreness and alleviate pain.

Pain reduction from acupuncture is thought to be due to the release of endorphins and/or a decrease in inflammation.

#2: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Decrease Inflammation 

Studies suggest that acupuncture can decrease inflammation, which can be useful for athletes who have an injury or are just recovering after a hard workout.

Acupuncture needles in the back.

#3: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Increase Circulation 

Although the concept of increasing the flow of “qi” or energy can be too “woo woo” for some people, evidence suggests that acupuncture does increase blood circulation.

Because blood carries oxygen and nutrients to tissues and helps shuttle away waste products and cellular debris, one of the benefits of acupuncture for athletes is indeed, its effect on increasing circulation to the treated muscles. 

Better circulation can lead to healthier tissues that are better able to handle the demands of intense training.

#4: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Aid Recovery From Exercise

As mentioned, acupuncture increases circulation.

The more “resources“ the muscles have access to (oxygen and nutrients), and the better able they are to offload metabolic waste products from intense exercise or damaged muscle proteins, the better your recovery will be.

A therapist performing acupuncture.

#5: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Aid Injury Healing

Because acupuncture can stimulate blood flow and decrease inflammation, acupuncture for athletes with injuries can be a useful adjunct to other treatment modalities such as physical therapy, heat/ice, rest, etc.

#6: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Reduce Joint and Muscle Pain

A review of multiple studies investigating the impact of acupuncture on knee pain and function in those with osteoarthritis of the knees found that although there wasn’t enough evidence to support the long-term pain-relieving effects, the studies did show that acupuncture treatments helped reduce knee pain and improve function in the short term.

Another review found that acupuncture sessions were helpful in decreasing the amount of pain medication necessary for people in the postoperative period after knee replacement surgery.

One study also found that acupuncture was effective at reducing low-back pain and improving back function immediately after a treatment session.

Cupping therapy.

#7: Acupuncture for Athletes Can Reduce Stress

Many people find acupuncture to be relaxing, which can be beneficial for athletes who deal with performance anxiety or stress.

What to Expect During Acupuncture 

If you’ve never had acupuncture before, it is normal to feel a bit anxious about your first treatment.

Acupuncture for athletes typically involves an intake process where you fill out paperwork and/or verbally discuss your health and medical history and goals of acupuncture treatments.

Then, you will lie on a table, exposing the area/s of skin that will be treated. 

The specific sites where needles will be inserted will depend on your chief complaints and treatment goals. 

For example, acupuncture for athletes with a pulled muscle or tendinitis will concentrate most of the needles on the injured tissues, but there will likely be additional needles inserted in other areas that are thought to unblock meridians and the flow of qi to and from the injured site.

A therapist performing acupuncture.

An athlete getting acupuncture for a hamstring pull or high hamstring tendonitis may get most of the needles along the back of the thigh and glutes but also several in the low back, calf muscle, and possibly even the foot.

Very thin, sterilized needles are inserted into your skin to varying depths to stimulate different layers of skin, fascia, and muscle tissue.

The acupuncturist may give a slight twist or tap to the needles during the session.

In general, acupuncture needles are so thin that they do not elicit significant pain, although most people do feel a slight pinch, sting, or momentary pain while the needle is being inserted. 

Additionally, if the acupuncturist twists or moves the needle once they are inserted to better stimulate flow, you may feel more pressure and pain.

There are also certain acupressure points that may be more tender or sensitive than others, and acupuncture for athletes with an injury is likely to be more painful because the treated tissue will be inflamed and sore.

A therapist performing acupuncture in someone's back.

If you experience significant pain when the needles are inserted, you should alert the acupuncturist immediately because this is not a typical response.

After the needles are in place, you may feel a sense of heaviness, pressure, or tingling, all of which are said to be a result of the flow of “qi.”

Most treatment sessions of acupuncture for athletes involve keeping the needles in place for 15-20 minutes, though sometimes needles remain in the skin for 30 minutes or more.

There may be additional modalities employed during an acupuncture session to augment treatment or provide other benefits.

Examples include cupping, moxibustion, and electroacupuncture.

With cupping, silicone or glass cups are placed on the skin, causing suction that helps pull your tissues apart and create a space to promote better circulation of blood and lymph.

In moxibustion, heated sticks made from dried herbs are held around the acupuncture needles to further stimulate these acupressure points by increasing warmth and circulation in these areas.

A therapist performing acupuncture.

In electroacupuncture, a weak electrical current is passed through the acupuncture needles, which are connected to an electrical device.

Depending on the type of acupuncture you had and the primary goals of the treatment, you may feel either more energized or relaxed after the session, but you shouldn’t have noticeable pain or bruising after acupuncture. The one caveat would be if you also had cupping therapy, which usually does cause bruising and some discomfort.

Overall, acupuncture for athletes can be beneficial in a variety of ways, and it’s generally well-tolerated and safe. If you have questions or concerns about adding acupuncture to your health and fitness routine, speak with your healthcare provider for personalized recommendations.

For more information on cupping, check out our article: What Is Cupping Therapy?

A therapist performing acupuncture.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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