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6 Ways Acupuncture Can Improve Athletic Performance According to a Bioengineer Turned Acupuncturist

Updated: 6 days ago

Acupuncture for Athletes

Michael Phelps with cupping marks during the 2016 summer Olympics. [1]


The modern athlete is constantly seeking methods that will help him/her achieve peak physical and mental condition and gain the competitive edge. For this reason, more and more professional and amateur athletes have recently turned to acupuncture and other Eastern medicine modalities, such as manual therapy, cupping, herbal medicine, and moxibustion heat therapy. The purpose of this article is to highlight 6 ways acupuncture can improve athletic performance.

1. Acupuncture Relieves Pain

Acupuncture is well-known for its natural pain-relieving effects. It achieves these effects by deactivating the pain centers in the brain [2], increasing local interstitial adenosine (an anti-inflammatory agent and neuromodulator with anti-nociceptive properties) concentration [3], stimulating the release of natural pain-relieving compounds (i.e., endorphins, enkephalins) [4], and promoting blood circulation (for more information on how acupuncture relieves pain, see our articles “4 Ways Acupuncture Relieves Pain” and "The Importance of De-Qi in Acupuncture"). All athletes at every level experience pain, whether from muscle soreness after a training session or from a debilitating injury. Acupuncture’s ability to relieve pain will help any athlete get back to performing at an optimal level.

2. Acupuncture Enhances Recovery

Many athletes have been drawn to acupuncture because of its ability to enhance recovery. This ability is two-fold: (1) acupuncture accelerates healing from injury, and (2) acupuncture enhances post-training recovery. In addition to promoting blood circulation and reducing inflammation, acupuncture can also improve energy levels and sleep. Acupuncture also uses biological signaling systems (e.g., the nervous system, vascular system, connective tissue network) to direct the body’s natural healing abilities to sites of macro- and microtrauma (for more information on acupuncture’s use of biological signaling systems, see our article “What is Qi? – A Scientifically-Minded Acupuncturist’s Perspective”). All of these factors help explain acupuncture’s recovery-enhancing properties, which allow athletes to spend less time recovering and more time training and competing, resulting in increased athletic performance.

3. Acupuncture Prevents Injury

One of the most important ways that acupuncture can improve athletic performance is through injury prevention. Acupuncture, in combination with other therapies like manual therapy and heat therapy, accomplishes this by improving range of motion, myofascial elasticity [5], joint stability and mobility, and overall structural integrity. Also, because of its ability to enhance recovery, acupuncture can repair microtraumas before they turn into macrotraumas. When microtraumas are able to heal effectively, they strengthen the affected tissue (e.g., recovery of microtrauma in muscle tissue leads to muscle hypertrophy). Acupuncture’s ability to prevent injury allows athletes to continue training and competing. For more information on acupuncture's ability to prevent injury, see our article "Preventive Medicine – The True Power of Eastern Medicine.”

4. Acupuncture Boosts Energy

In addition to its many structural benefits, acupuncture also has many energetic benefits. Acupuncture boosts physical and mental energy levels by improving energy metabolism [6] and sleep. Energy metabolism refers to the process by which the body converts food and air into usable energy. Improving the efficiency of this process increases the amount of available energy that an athlete can access and reduces energy expenditure. Because acupuncture also improves blood circulation, this energy is also distributed more efficiently throughout the athlete’s body. As stated above, acupuncture also improves quality of sleep, which has a multitude of health benefits, including increased mental energy. Athletes who reap the energy-boosting benefits of acupuncture are able to achieve optimal performance levels.

5. Acupuncture Improves Focus and Reduces Stress

Because acupuncture enhances neural signaling [7] and sleep quality, it also improves an athlete’s focus. Combined with improved energy levels, this effect greatly increases an athlete’s athletic performance. Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety [8]. Athletes are often under tremendous pressure to perform during both training and competition. Acupuncture can help athletes alleviate this performance anxiety, allowing them to focus on the task at hand. Acupuncture’s ability to relieve pain and enhance recovery also improves athletes’ ability to handle the physical stresses endured during training and competition.

6. Acupuncture Strengthens the Immune System

Athletes often put their bodies through extreme conditions, such as overtraining [9], heat exhaustion, performance anxiety, and weight-cutting, all of which can weaken the immune system. Reduced immune function makes athletes more susceptible to illness, increasing their risk of losing valuable training time or missing important competitions due to illness. Even mild sickness can greatly affect athletic performance. Acupuncture has been shown to strengthen the immune system [10][11], which allows athletes to remain in action and perform at an optimal level.

The Bottom Line

Acupuncture can improve athletic performance in many ways, including reducing pain, enhancing recovery, preventing injury, boosting energy, improving focus, reducing stress, and strengthening the immune system. At Rise, we offer performance optimization treatments for professional and amateur athletes as well as individuals who are interested in improving their athletic and/or work performance. We are committed to providing our patients and clients with a holistic and effective approach to healing, as well as the knowledge to proactively prevent illness and injury. We work tirelessly to ensure that our patients and clients receive the care, tools, and knowledge to restore balance to their lives. We take pride in going above and beyond for those who choose us as their healthcare and wellness providers. Please contact us to request an appointment.


[1] Rodulfo, Kristina. Why Are Olympic Athletes Cupping? Elle. Aug 8, 2016.

[2] Wang, Xiaoling, Suk-Tak Chan, Jiliang Fang, Erika E. Nixon, Jing Liu, Kenneth K. Kwong, Bruce R. Rosen, and Kathleen K. S. Hui. 2013. Neural Encoding of Acupuncture Needling Sensations: Evidence from a fMRI Study. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM 2013 (1): 483105. doi:10.1155/2013/483105.

[3] Takano T, Chen X, Luo F, et al. Traditional acupuncture triggers a local increase in adenosine in human subjects. J Pain. 2012;13(12):1215-1223. doi:10.1016/j.jpain. 2012.09.012

[4] Han JS. Acupuncture and endorphins. Neurosci Lett. 2004;361(1-3):258-261. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2003.12.019

[5] Jafri MS. Mechanisms of Myofascial Pain. Int Sch Res Notices. 2014;2014:523924. doi:10.1155/2014/523924

[6] Ma H, Liu X, Wu Y, Zhang N. The Intervention Effects of Acupuncture on Fatigue Induced by Exhaustive Physical Exercises: A Metabolomics Investigation. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:508302. doi:10.1155/2015/508302

[7] Leung MC, Yip KK, Ho YS, Siu FK, Li WC, Garner B. Mechanisms underlying the effect of acupuncture on cognitive improvement: a systematic review of animal studies. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2014;9(4):492-507. doi:10.1007/s11481-014-9550-4

[8] Shayestehfar M, Seif-Barghi T, Zarei S, Mehran A. Acupuncture Anxiolytic Effects on Physiological and Psychological Assessments for a Clinical Trial. Scientifica (Cairo). 2016;2016:4016952. doi:10.1155/2016/4016952

[9] Hackney AC, Koltun KJ. The immune system and overtraining in athletes: clinical implications. Acta Clin Croat. 2012;51(4):633-641.

[10] Arranz L, Guayerbas N, Siboni L, De la Fuente M. Effect of acupuncture treatment on the immune function impairment found in anxious women. Am J Chin Med. 2007;35(1):35-51. doi:10.1142/S0192415X07004606

[11] Chen L, Xu A, Yin N, et al. Enhancement of immune cytokines and splenic CD4+ T cells by electroacupuncture at ST36 acupoint of SD rats. PLoS One. 2017;12(4):e0175568. Published 2017 Apr 13. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0175568



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