Traditional acupuncture has an extraordinary ability to provide quick pain relief and speedy rehabilitation to injury of the muscular skeletal system. Injuries are a common occurrence for anyone doing physical activity or organised sport. Whether you are a professional or amateur athlete, fitness enthusiast or ordinary person exercising for health benefits, chances are you have previously experienced physical injury and likely will again. The strategies used by traditional acupuncture to heal traumatic injury are sophisticated and time tested, and often work much faster than conventional care.
To illustrate the process of how traditional acupuncture is used to treat physical injury, I will discuss the treatment of strains and sprains. These conditions are compounds of tissue damage and inflammation. The type of tissue involved differentiates these terms. Tendons connect muscles to bones, contraction and lengthening of muscle tissue allows movement and locomotion of our bodily structures. When tendinous/ muscular tissue is overstretched and torn, it is called a strain. Ligaments connect bones to bones, and are responsible for reinforcing a joint and keeping its movement within certain limits. When a ligament is overstretched and torn it is called a sprain. Tissue damage causes inflammation, and therefore the injured area will likely become swollen, hot, painful and difficult to use.
I follow 4 principals when treating strains and sprains:
- Controlling inflammation and promoting healing
- Releasing related patterns of restriction
- Assisting tissue healing
- Restoring confidence and strength
Controlling Inflammation and Promoting Healing
The healing process requires inflammation. In modern medicine it is conventional to ice the site of an injury, however in Traditional East Asian Medicine there is a preference to warm the area. Both approaches aim to control the inflammatory process so that pain, heat, swelling and poor function can be minimized. In my professional opinion the value of icing is limited, as the reaction of the body to a cold stimulus inhibits the healing of damaged tissue. From a modern medical perspective, tissue damage stimulates the body to send cells and proteins to the local area in order to promote healing. Icing practices restrict local vascular circulation, preventing these cells and proteins from reaching the site of damage, and thus delaying the healing process. In contrast, using heat to warm the injury site is supportive of the body’s healing mechanisms. Heat increases local vascular circulation ensuring cells and proteins reach the site of injury. Furthermore, increasing vascular circulation allows excessive heat to be discharged through sweating of the local area, hence causing a degree of cooling. In extreme circumstances of swelling, one may remove congested blood and fluids through therapeutic bleeding. This clears stagnation from the area allowing the body to more effectively send in new cells and proteins to advance the healing process.
At my clinic, I use the logic of applying heat to control inflammation and promote healing. This is accomplished by applying moxibustion (heat therapy) on top of the skin, or, on top of an acupuncture needle at the site of injury. Therapeutic bleeding, if required, usually involves removing only a few drops of blood. However, in certain circumstances, therapeutic bleeding may be done in conjunction with cupping to remove several millilitres of blood.
Releasing related patterns of restriction
In addition to promoting healing at the site of injury it is also important to resolve any related patterns of muscular restriction. When I use the term muscular restriction I am trying to convey the clinical findings of tightness in the connected musculature linked to the injury site. These restrictions may have formed in response to the injury, or they may have been a precipitating factor in the injury event. Regardless, fixing these sites will help relieve pain and allow freer movement. By facilitating an active state of rest (i.e. within certain limits), the sufferer is promoting vascular circulation through the injury site and assisting the healing process. Acupuncture and massage are particularly suited to release these broad patterns of muscular restriction related to an injury.
Assisting tissue healing
The desired outcome of the healing process is the regeneration of damaged tissue with healthy functional tissue. When tissue healing is unsupported, recovery time is lengthened. Furthermore, there is a greater likelihood of the body forming scar tissue, or of swelling and pain persisting due to a sub-acute inflammatory response. Good initial management gets the healing process off to a positive start. Once the inflammation subsides, action is taken to improve the quality of the healing tissue in order to hasten its recovery. In most cases, there will be general tightness, induration (formation of hard points in the tissue), moderate pain and a feeling of vulnerability/ lack of strength during use. Acupuncture excels at softening indurations and reducing tightness. These actions will assist in maintaining good vascular conditions, which in turn continue to support regeneration of healthy functional tissue. Furthermore, improvements in tissue state are linked to the alleviation of pain and a return of strength/ confidence.
Restoring Strength and Confidence
It is expected, as the tissue returns to a healthy and functional state, that strength and confidence will improve during use. Returning to exercise will further promote vascular activity and tissue healing, which assists a full recovery. However, people sometimes remark that they lack confidence or lack strength in the previously damaged region. This is not unexpected, and is why I suggest the treatment process continue until optimum performance is achieved.
There is an old saying in Traditional East Asian Medicine, “where there is pain there is stagnation, where there is stagnation there is pain.” This saying exemplifies the importance of promoting circulation, freeing restriction and improving tissue state in the treatment of pain and trauma.