When it comes to internal medicine, I’m a big fan of nutritional remedies, rather than drugs. When it comes to external injuries, I have become a huge fan of Chinese Sports Medicine. [Caveat: This modality was not effective when I injured my shoulder. In fact, I wound up with a frozen shoulder that took an orthopedic specialist to cure. So for joint damage, steer clear. But for soft tissue damage, come a runnin’.]
Originally published 2011
I was introduced to the practice of Chinese Sports Medicine affter going over the handlebars on my mountain bike. No bones were broken, but the deltoid and tricep in one arm were banged up pretty badly when I broke my fall and landed on my upper arm. (In effect, my upper arm sacrificed itself to save my head, ribs, collar bone, and other bones. Good ‘ol arm!)
So off to the web I went, where found the nearby Integrative and Sports Medicine Center (near to Silicon Valley, at least). The center is run by Frank He (“Hee-ouh“, where the send vowel is pronouced like “hoof”, without the consonants). He’s a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Liaoning Medical University in China, where he specialized in Sports Medicine, Neurology, and Opthamology. Here in the U.S. he has a teaching practice, where he is Professor and Director of Accupuncture and Sports Medicine, as well as practitioner — so he typically has an intern or two following him around as he meets with patients. (To meet legal requirements in the U.S., he became a Qualified Medical Examiner in the state of California.)
I have a lot of experience with sports injuries.
Nothing in my entire life has healed this fast, ever.
The nice thing about working with someone who teaches is that they’re good at explaining what they’re doing. So not only did I experience the benefits, I found out a lot about how Chinese Sports Medicine works. I’ve become a huge fan of the practice, for the simple reason that never in my life have I had any injury heal more quickly. In short, the results have been amazing. I have a lot of experience with sports injuries. (See the Appendix.) And after only a couple of weeks, I’m almost as good as new. And I’ve learned better ways to care for myself when I pull a muscle.
“Chinese Sports Medicine” is more commonly known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)–a very effective healing modality that works without drugs (so, naturally, health insurance covers hardly any of it). But I very much like the term “sports medicine”, because it’s indicative of one kind of problem that it handles exceptionally well. (It also handles headaches, back pain, and many other problems. But categorizing it as “sports medicine” contrasts it nicely with “internal medicine”, where I tend to favor a nutritional approach.)
A Typical Session
A visit to his office goes something like this:
- He examines the area to see what’s going on.
- He puts in acupuncture needles and wires them up to a small, battery-powered electrical device.
- He puts it under an infrared heat lamp
- You lie there for 20 minutes letting the good stuff happen
- He comes back, massages things, and moves them around.
- He puts some heated glass cups on the skin to draw blood away from the injured area.
The whole process takes and hour.
Here’s what those techniques are doing:
I once tried acupuncture for allergies, and got nowhere (an example of using an external technique for an internal problem that was better treated nutritionally, as described in Conquering Allergies. But for sports injuries, it does appear to have its uses.
In his treatments, Frank attaches electrodes to the needles, and a runs a small, battery-powered current through them. He then ramps up the current until you feel a twitching sensation. (It feels odd, at first, until you get used to it.)
When I asked about the purpose of the current, Frank He replied to me that, “Negative leads can decrease vasodilation (dilation of the blood vessels) hence reduction of edema/swelling of injured tissues. Positive leads can increase vasodilation, which results in pain relief.”
It seems that, in China, doctors come by every few minutes and jiggle the needles. That creates a pretty intense sensation that people in China are accustomed to. Since it’s new to us Westerners, it feels painful at first — mostly because its a strange sensation. So Frank uses a mild current.
His technique is to ramp it up until you tell him it feels painful, then he backs it off and leaves it there, just below your pain threshold. Eventually, though, you get to where you don’t mind the twitching sensation, and he can use a stronger current.
- So you lie there, with the muscles mildly twitching — which is significant for two very important reasons. First, it activates the lymph system, which drains away cellular wastes and pathogens killed by the immune system. The lymph system only works in response to muscle contraction, as the contractions squeeze the lymph through tiny, one-way valves.Second, the muscles squeeze the capillaries, which helps to move blood to the tissues and away from it. (That action is most significant when there is capillary damage. It’s like a puddle of old rain water that has collected on the ground — the contracting muscles help to pump it away, so it can be replaced with “fresh water” or, in this case, fresh blood.)
- Heat Lamp
- The infrared heat lamp penetrates deep into the muscles, warming them, relaxing them, and increasing blood flow. The blood carries oxygen and nutrients, supplying both the energy and the building blocks needed for cellular repair and growth.
- Deep tissue massage breaks up adhesions (scar tissue), and further improves blood flow to promote healing. The muscle warming and relaxing that precedes it allows the practitioner to go much deeper before you feel any real pain.
- Heating Cups
- Imagine the biggest hickey you’ve ever had in your life. That’s what the heated cups do. But rather than putting them on the injury, you place them next to it, to draw away blood that’s clogging up the works. (A somewhat deeper explanation is given below.)
Heat for Healing
Imagine you’ve gone to a disaster site where both the water mains and the sewage lines are broken. Water is flooding the place, because it has nowhere to drain. That’s basically what you see with your basic injury. The repair crew (nutrients in the blood) can’t get to the houses they need to fix (cells), because there’s water everywhere. So the first step is to minimize the damage.
In the West, we use the RICE formula (rest, ice, compression, elevation), for the first 24 hours. After that, we’re supposed to use RH (rest and heat). The ice and elevation turns off the water, in effect, so water stops flooding the place. After that, heat is used to improve blood flow, so that nutrients (the repair crew) can do their work.
In the East, the approach is to get new blood to the cells as quickly as possible, so the repair crews can go to work immediately. But what to do about the flooding? The approach is to put in water pumps to take it away and put it somewhere else.
Those water pumps come in two forms:
- The heated cups – Cups will be placed to either side of the injured area, so blood is drawn away from the injury site. The swelling and inflammation of the injured area is immediately reduced, allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to get to the injury, along with the nutrients it carries.
- Acupuncture – Depending on the current direction and placement of the needles, the resulting vasodilation, vasoconstriction, and general muscle twitching does some combination of stimulating drainage, stimulating blood flow, or restricting blood flow, as appropriate.
It’s even possible to work on multiple areas at once. For example, I have scar tissue from old injuries in my right knee and ankle, and I’m carrying some excess belly fat that has stubbornly resisted reduction despite two years of fairly intensive effort.
So, in a recent session we had acupuncture pins and heat lamps on the ankle, knee, upper arm, and belly. In effect, we did whole-spectrum healing, all in the same hour.
Stages of Recovery
As with all such recovery, the healing occurs in three distinct stages:
- Recover passive range of motion, without pain.
In this case, I’ll use the good arm to lift the injured arm, or brace it against a wall and move my body, working to get the arm stretched out as far as it can go. Doing so helps to break up scar tissue (it hurts, but you don’t want to do too much at any one time), and brings more blood to the area for healing. (Scar tissue doesn’t stretch. It tears. So this part of the process ensures that things are healing with useful muscle tissue.)
- Recover active range of motion, without pain.
In this case, it means moving the arm under its own power, through its full range of motion. When that can be done without pain, it means that the muscle tissue has fully healed.
- Rehabilitation work.
Training the muscle using various forms of resistance to make it stronger. At this stage, you recover full use of the injured limb. You also strengthen the muscles all around the injured area (the supporting muscles), which stabilize the limb in use and help prevent future injury.
These aren’t recommended by Chinese medicine in particular, but in the spirit of full disclosure,
I wanted to mention that I’m using them:
- A pain-relieving cream that contains Emu Oil (for what that’s worth) and high levels of MSM. Learn more: Why You Want MSM.
- Penetrans + Plus
- An MSM-based ointment that provides the body with an important ingredient used in the building of cell walls (MSM), and which carries it’s pain-relief ingredients deep into the muscle.
- Tiger Balm
- Wonderfully soothing ointment that heats up the muscle nicely. (I tried Icy Hot, but the ointment didn’t work that well for me. The patches were pretty good, though.)
- Odorless pain killing ointment. May not promote healing, but it helped make sleep possible, the first few days, until I found the other salves..
Personal Healing Modality
I don’t have acupuncture needles (wouldn’t know what to do with them, if I did) and I don’t have cups (but I’m in the market, if I can find some). I do have an electric heating pad, and a vibrator with a built-in infrared ring around it. So my personal healing modality for minor muscle tears looks like this::
- Heating pad — To warm up the muscles.
- Penetrans + Plus — Either before or after the heating pad, so the healing ingredients can start soaking in.
- Massage — By hand if necessary, using a vibrator, if possible.
- Any vibrator will work, but one with an infrared element is preferred, to continue relaxing the muscle and encouraging blood flow.
- When you find a painful knot, you hold the vibrator there until it dissolves, and the pain goes away. That way, you’ve broken up the adhesion, and the MSM is on its way to help create healthy tissue. (In the absence of sufficient MSM, the body creates scar tissue — the very thing you’ve just broken up.)
The net result of the practices is an astonishingly quick rate of healing, with less pain than I’ve ever experienced. (And believe me, the pain was considerable at first, until I got in for treatment.)
- Integrative and Sports Medicine Center, run by Professor Frank He
- Wall Street Journal article on acupuncture
I don’t subscribe to the Chinese theory for why acupuncture works. But the practice does work, and with the right scientific tools, it’s possible to understand why. This article does a decent job of summarizing the known science, at this point in time.
- Cupping Therapy
Nice visual display of different ways to do cupping, using either a vacuum or the Chinese “fire cupping” technique.
- TreeLight Store (Healing section)
For the ointments, heating pad, and vibrating massager mentioned in this article.
Major injuries I’ve experienced and the sports in which I’ve incurred them (to show that I have some basis for comparison, rather than to brag about my ineptitude :_)
Broken bone in my hand Windsurfing Broken finger Roller Blading Massive blisters Basketball Sprained ankle, thumb Volleyball Jammed fingers Basketball, Volleyball Broken arm, badly scraped thigh Cycling Bruises and contusions Martial Arts Ruptured deltoid Mountain Biking Pulled hip muscle, strained calf, plantar fascitis Running Torn medial collateral, meniscus damage Table Tennis Pulled hamstring Soccer
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