Issue 18 • October 2013

Needles, Chi and Maximizing Your Athletic Performance

“Stick needles in me? Seriously you must be kidding…..right?” I have to admit that was my 1st response when a friend suggested I try acupuncture for my aching shoulder. Like many avid tennis enthusiasts I had hit the court a little too frequently without the appropriate shoulder conditioning and I was paying the price. But acupuncture? Really?

I must admit, until my 1st treatment, the idea of acupuncture smacked of some eastern hocus pocus. But after a single treatment gave me 8 weeks of pain free court time, I was a believer. Maybe those ancient Chinese knew a little more than I thought.

Acupuncture is at it’s most basic, the attempt to influence health through the insertion of fine, sharp needles into richly innervated points around the body. Early Chinese practitioners believed that acupuncture moved “Qi” or energy around the body and normalized its flow. In their tradition, energy lines or meridians criss-cross the body and placing needles along these paths can influence health.

As a western-trained physician, Chi and meridians are a foreign concept to me, but the idea of “energy” flowing through the body and controlling most aspects of human health and disease does make sense. In fact we call this system of energy the nervous system. Cutting edge science suggests that acupuncture works by modulating the nervous system in powerful ways.

When acupuncture needles are placed through the skin they cause surrounding blood vessels to “dilate” or open up. This increases blood flow to the region, increased blood flow means more nutrition and oxygen, which are crucial for performance and rapid recuperation after intense training. Sports injuries also require adequate nutrition to heal well. Acupuncture also results in the release of pain reducing molecules in the brain and spinal cord called endorphins. These are your bodies own low dose opioids, much like pain medicines we prescribe in clinic. Running, intense workouts, sexual activity, all result in the release of endorphins. Acupuncture does the same. Science also suggests acupuncture can re-set or “reboot” the nervous system so to speak. Some liken it to hitting “control-alt-delete” on your computer. While it sounds simple, new studies from Harvard, UCLA and other bastions of science are showing it is an incredibly complex process. By influencing the deepest structures of the brain acupuncture is able to influence how sensitive and reactive the nerves and muscles of your body are to pain. It is really amazing stuff.

It was the simplicity and low risk nature of the treatment along with the remarkable improvement I felt that inspired me to pursue physician training in contemporary acupuncture at Harvard and Mcmaster University. Since my training I have treated hundreds of athletes. As with any treatment, not everyone responds to acupuncture and the science suggests you should try at least 2-4 treatments before you say it didn’t work for you. I have seen some great success with acute and chronic tendon problems, stubborn muscle strains, low back pain, shoulder impingement, tennis elbow, knee arthritis and a host of other common athletic or age-related problems. My experience mirrors the science. In fact more and more docs are now recommending acupuncture for treatment of common injuries, aches and pains.

Whether an elite or recreational athlete, acupuncture may be just what you need to help your body get over a stubborn injury, accelerate recovery and maximize performance. As an athlete myself, I know just how powerful it can be.

So next time you are struggling with a sports injury find out if acupuncture is right for you. Your recovery just might start at the tip of a needle.

Stephan Esser MD, USPTA is a Non-operative Sports and Spine physician at Heekin Orthopedics in Jacksonville, FL. He was a former #1 in the US in Men’s Open USTA Doubles Tennis and includes contemporary western acupuncture in his practice. He can be reached at

Dr. Stephan Esser

Dr. Stephan Esser

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