Acupuncture Scores Points with Athletes

The sports world was skeptical when New York Knicks shooting guard
Allan Houston announced that he was receiving acupuncture treatments
for an ankle injury.

Then he started playing better, and doubt turned into a mixture of
surprise and curiosity.

However, according to Matt Callison, a faculty member at Pacific
College of Oriental Medicine and licensed acupuncturist in San Diego,
California, traditional Chinese medicine has been an extremely helpful
and growing trend in athletics for quite a while. San Francisco 49ers
Steve Young and Jerry Rice have been treated with acupuncture, and
Canadian speedskater Kevin Overland received acupuncture to help him
earn a bronze medal in the 1998 Olympics.

As a sports acupuncturist, Callison has been treating athletes for 11
years. Three of those years were spent with the Minnesota Vikings
during their playoff run, and he now treats many of the San Diego

“It all started with one guy – Martin Bayless – and then he ended up
referring some more players, and it has snowballed from there,”
Callison explained.

Because of these referrals and his affiliation with AcuSport Health
Center in San Diego, Callison said that about half of his current
patients are involved in professional sports.

Started in 2000, AcuSport was created to offer a unique blend of
Eastern and Western approaches to orthopedic and internal medicine.
By integrating multiple healing techniques, AcuSport is one of the
first holistic medical facilities of its kind.

Callison also works in conjunction with student interns from Pacific
College of Oriental Medicine to treat athletes from the University of
California San Diego (UCSD). At UCSD’s RIMAC Arena athletes receive
acupuncture treatments in addition to care from athletic trainers and
physical therapists. Pacific College interns use acupuncture to help
rehabilitate post-operative injuries, sports injuries and athletic
performance by increasing range of motion, muscle strength and tissue
healing potential. This partnership with UCSD and PCOM allows
Callison to share his unique combination of Sports Medicine, Chinese
Medicine and Kinesiology with students and athletes alike.
Callison reported that the most common injuries he treats athletes
for are muscle contusions and tendinitis, as well as over-use
injuries involving the lower back, shoulder, knee and ankle. These
injuries typically require two acupuncture treatments a week, with a
varied recovery time depending on the injury.

Callison said that he treats “any and all injuries” with the same
philosophy: by combining traditional Chinese medicine with
traditional sports medicine. The result is a unique blend of
acupuncture and exercises that Callison said has a quick
rehabilitation time.

Marcellus Wiley, a defensive end for the San Diego Chargers, is one
patient who noticed how quickly he felt the benefits of acupuncture.

“I responded quickly and favorably to the treatment,” Wiley said. “It
was refreshing to receive therapy that allowed me to sustain my
health for the duration of a season and physically grueling career.”

According to Callison, both Oriental medicine and sports medicine
techniques focus on proprioception, which he defines as the muscles’
awareness communicating to the central nervous system. According to
Callison, injury can disrupt this communication, thus hindering

“Acupuncture is one of the quickest ways to restore muscle balance,”
Callison said. “When acupuncture is used at specific sites, the
muscle spindles are reset, and then that balance is reawakened.”

Baltimore Ravens safety Will Demps regards acupuncture as a definite
asset to his training.

“In my extensive off-season workouts, I have noticed a difference in
my balance and agility since receiving treatments at AcuSport Health
Center,” Demps said. “I feel my muscles have been ‘turned on’ and are
firing on all cylinders.”

Though traditional sports medicine can also help with proprioception
by doing exercises, Callison is quick to point out that the results
are greatly enhanced when acupuncture is applied prior to therapeutic

“When you insert an acupuncture needle to a motor point region, it
changes the awareness that the muscle reports to the central nervous
system, and that is completely different,” Callison said.

Acupuncture consists of the gentle insertion and stimulation of thin,
disposable sterile needles at strategic points near the surface of
the body. Over 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect
with 14 major pathways, called meridians. Chinese medicine
practitioners believe that these meridians conduct qi, or energy,
between the surface of the body and internal organs. It is qi that
regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance. When the
flow of qi is disrupted through poor health habits or other
circumstances, pain and/or disease can result. Acupuncture helps to
keep the normal flow of this energy unblocked and “fine-tune the
bio-electric system,” as Callison says.

Callison also said this ability to fine-tune and restore the body’s
balance makes acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine a viable
preventative therapy that greatly enhances sports medicine exercises.

“Many players come to see me for injury prevention by way of
balancing their opposing muscle groups,” Callison said.

Brian Russell, a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, is one of those players.

“As a professional athlete, my career is dependent on my ability to
stay healthy,” Russell said. “Matt has prevented and treated injuries
that may otherwise have shortened my career in the NFL. Matt is a
fundamental part of my program, and I intend to see him for the
remainder of my career and beyond.”

While Callison has been using Oriental medicine with athletes for
many years, it’s undeniable that most people are unaware of what a
strong athletic trend acupuncture is becoming.

“Combining sports medicine with traditional Chinese medicine is still
in its infant stage,” Callison said. “It’s actually very popular, but
many athletes may not be telling the media or their trainers that
they’re getting it.”

Physician and Sports Medicine reported that a study conducted in 1993
revealed that 72 percent of athletes used some type of holistic
unconventional therapy and did not tell their physicians that they
had done so.

One exception to this rule is the San Diego Spirit soccer team, which
has been officially affiliated with AcuSport Health Center since
2002. Ken Luke, a licensed acupuncturist, Pacific College graduate,
and a certified athletic trainer since 1990, has been working with
the team for two years.

“I do the acupuncture exclusively, and then the team’s athletic
trainer and I share the other things, like orthopedic rehabilitation
and muscle stretching,” Luke said. “It’s very similar to what Matt

According to San Diego Spirit head athletic trainer Tony Ontiveros,
using acupuncture in conjunction with Western medical practices has
been a positive experience.

“I’m definitely open to trying different techniques,” said Ontiveros,
who has been working with Luke for four years. “I consider Ken a
valuable member of our sports medicine family.”

The San Diego Spirit players have also noticed the benefits of acupuncture.

“My attitude towards any kind of therapy is that it can’t hurt,” said
goalkeeper Jaime Pagliarulo. “It’s really made a difference. We’re
really fortunate to have [acupuncture treatments] because we didn’t
have them before the last two years.”

Pagliarulo said that her teammates feel the same way.

According to Pagliarulo, defensive player Kim Pickup says she craves
the acupuncture treatments every week.

“She always says her muscles are craving it,” Pagliarulo said.

Ontiveros has also seen how much the players enjoy and benefit from
the acupuncture sessions they receive once a week on average.

“I notice that the ladies enjoy the treatments,” he said. “I think
Ken and I wouldn’t have a relationship if this thing hadn’t been
successful from the start.”

Despite Ontiveros’ positive attitude towards acupuncture, Callison
said that many trainers and sports administrations don’t like the
idea of their players receiving acupuncture because of its
untraditional nature.

“Acupuncture is still taboo amongst many Western medical
professionals, mostly because they are unaware of its efficacy,”
Callison said.

While many patients are wary of acupuncture because of the needles
involved, Callison maintains that there are no side effects of
acupuncture treatments when provided by a fully trained and licensed

In 1993, the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on
Acupuncture released a similar affirmation: “The data in support of
acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical
therapies. One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence
of adverse side effects is substantially lower than that of many
drugs or other medical procedures used for the same conditions.”

Yet Callison is also quick to note that he doesn’t think acupuncture
is superior to traditional sports medicine techniques. Rather, they
act to complement each other, one filling in the gap where the other
may be lacking.

“It’s another slice of the pie,” he said. “One athlete may respond to
traditional sports medicine and another may respond really well to
TCM. The method used may depend on the stage of healing the injury is

Callison went on to note that it is important to take individual
differences between both injuries and people into account before
choosing a recovery technique.

“It all depends on the circumstances,” Callison said. “Combining the
two medicines can be another adjunct to use where one medicine may
not cover most aspects of the injury. Every human being is different
and will react to an injury individually. What modality is used [East
and West] is up to the practitioner, who can utilize them the best
way in order to help the patient.”

In the end, Callison hopes that more athletes will try acupuncture.

“Athletes especially need to be balanced and take care of their
bodies,” Callison said. “That is what acupuncture does. Every athlete
can benefit from it in that respect.”

For more information on how athletes can benefit from acupuncture,
please contact Pacific College of Oriental Medicine at (800) 729-0941
or go to

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Written by Carrie Elizabeth Sklar

Explore Wellness in 2021