Acupuncture starts to penetrate sports world
Although group rhythmic gymnastics wasn’t an Olympic sport back when Sonia Tan was competing, the Vancouver resident represented Canada at a number of international events in the early ’90s. Tan knows firsthand about the gruelling physical and mental demands that high-stakes competitions like the Olympics place on athletes. She can also attest to the price athletes pay when they’re not in top health.
“In my early 20s, I had trouble finishing my routines because I was gasping for air,” Tan explains in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “As a child I developed exercise-induced asthma, and I also had allergies that required weekly injections and daily medication.”
Growing up in Toronto, she and her family mostly turned to western medical treatments, even though her grandfather used traditional Chinese medicine with great success. But with an international competition fast approaching, Tan was frustrated by the lack of relief she was getting from conventional approaches.
Out of desperation she tried acupuncture and Chinese herbs. She couldn’t believe how much better she felt so fast.
“I was ready for that competition, and I did fine,” she says. “After about six months, I didn’t need my medication anymore at all. I was completely symptom-free. It was really eye-opening.”¦I credit it for giving me the gift of my health back.”
In fact, Tan found the whole experience with the centuries-old therapies so profound that, after completing a degree in kinesiology with a specialty in athletic injuries, she went on to study at Vancouver’s International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Tan, 36, has lived here since 2002 and has been in private practice since 2004.
With the Olympics in full swing, she’s hoping that, just as she did during her intense days of gymnastics training, other athletes will reap the benefits of traditional therapies. Tan is volunteering as an acupuncturist at one of the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ Polyclinics—multidisciplinary health-care centres in Vancouver and Whistler. Besides emergency and primary care, among other health services, the clinics provide physiotherapy, massage therapy, and chiropractic treatments to athletes, Vanoc officials, and media.
Acupuncture as a treatment for sports ailments gained widespread recognition during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, when the service was offered for free to athletes and officials in the Olympic Village. Canadian speed skater Kevin Overland has reportedly used it to beneficial effect, as have hockey great Jaromír Jágr and former NFL player Marcellus Wiley.
The treatment involves the insertion of tiny needles along the body’s meridians, which practitioners believe conduct qi, or energy, which regulates physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional harmony. The theory is that illness results when qi is “blocked” or imbalanced. By stimulating certain points in the body, acupuncture seeks to unblock and balance a person’s energy.
Acupuncture’s benefits for athletes and people who are physically active are many, Tan claims, particularly if they’re dealing with musculoskeletal problems. It helps reduce pain and inflammation and increase circulation. Combined, these effects boost the body’s ability to heal from injury and enhance the overall feeling of well-being.
“Acupuncture restores people’s energy to an optimal state of balance,” Tan says. “For me, I had weekly treatments of acupuncture, and my body felt completely different after. I was on so much medication that I felt like I was in a fog; with acupuncture, I felt more strong, more natural.”
That brings up another point about the benefit of the technique for Olympic athletes: it doesn’t involve ingesting any potentially harmful or banned substances. “When it comes to anyone who’s active and who’s conscious about what they’re taking, acupuncture gives them natural relief for pain and inflammation.”
She says it can also help reduce stress and alleviate insomnia, two things that are common among men and women preparing for the race of their lives.
“The mental preparation and stress is huge,” Tan says. “It’s a whole different psyche.”
According to a 2005 medical review of the effectiveness of acupuncture on sports injuries by the U.K.–based Acupuncture Research Resource Centre, acupuncture has been shown to successfully treat ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis pain, and patellofemoral pain syndrome, among other conditions. However, the review noted that more research is needed because there have been few studies to date, and these have varied in quality.
Local acupuncturist Ian Dunsmuir, manager of acupuncture services at the Games’ Polyclinics, explains that this is the first time in the history of the Olympics that such fully integrated health care has been offered. That speaks to the effectiveness and acceptance of techniques like acupuncture.
“Having it during the Olympics is building acupuncture’s integrity and popularity,” Dunsmuir says in a phone interview. “It will create more awareness.”
Whether a person is aiming for a gold medal in alpine skiing or simply running a few times a week, acupuncture can help improve range of motion, loosen tight muscles, align the pelvis, and improve balance, he adds.
Dunsmuir notes that a lot of people don’t like the idea of acupuncture because they’re scared of needles.
“That’s really a myth,” he explains. “The needles are very, very thin, nowhere near as big as ones used when you get a vaccination or have blood taken.
“Most people are very relaxed during a treatment,” he says. “Some people fall asleep.”