Pain Medication vs. Acupuncture for Sports Injuries

When it comes to sports injuries, I’ve been on both sides of the fence; being the injured athlete in pain and disabled and being the doctor/therapist treating the athlete.

It’s certainly no fun to be hurt.  And it’s also no fun to be sidelined from the sport you love because of pain and injury.  What do you do?

For many athletes, whether they are a professional, amateur or weekend warrior, the common response is to open up the cabinet and reach for the pain medication.  It could be the over-the counter variety like Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, etc, or it could be prescription type like Tylenol#3, Oxycontin or Percocet from your medical doctor.

Now I’m not saying it’s wrong to take pain medications…there is a time and place for these.  But I will say that they should not be relied on solely to help alleviate pain and restore the injured athlete.

This is where acupuncture can play a vital role in the treatment of athletic injuries.  Because acupuncture can not only relieve pain by desensitizing nerve endings and reducing swelling and inflammation but also stimulating your body’s healing mechanisms to repair damaged tissue.

What are the important differences between acupuncture therapy and pharmaceutical therapy?  Acupuncture works at the level of the injured tissue, the spinal cord level to block pain signals and the brain level to change the perception of pain.  Importantly, it starts by fixing the damage first and as the tissue heals, the pain naturally subsides.

This occurs because inserting an acupuncture needle in the area of an injury stimulates the immune system and blood circulation resulting in more oxygen, nutrients and immune repair cells delivered to the injury site.

In contrast, pain medications can block the pain signal at the spinal cord level or brain centres to quickly take away the sensation of pain, but the tissue damage is still waiting for the supply of nutrients and oxygen that is required for healing.

The danger then is for athletes to use pain meds or even worse, steroid injections, to suppress the pain.  They then return too quickly to training and competition and the tissue damage becomes more severe.  The athlete is lulled into a false sense of belief that he is ‘ok’ when he truly is not and soon an acute injury become a chronic one that puts him/her out of action for an even longer period of time.

Who would’ve thought that these little needles could do so much?

Dr. Keith


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