Alternative treatments — including acupuncture and chiropractic care — may help you get healthier, faster.
Whether they’re hobbling along mid-workout with a tight hamstring, stuck spinning on a stationary bike or sitting on the couch willing a stress fracture to heal faster, injured runners are desperate for a treatment — or at least enough relief so they can run.
Runners should consult a qualified medical professional when they feel acute pain. But even an official diagnosis in science-based Western health care may not satiate the injured runner — especially when a traditional treatment plan (“Stop running!”) is prescribed. That’s often when the running wounded turn to alternative practitioners for answers.
“We’re either the first people they see, because they’ve been referred to us by their coach,” says Ken Sheridan, a chiropractic sports physician in Denver, Colo., “or we see them last. They’ve been to every doctor they can go to. They’ve already tried the two PT visits they’re given. They’ve tried the exercise sheets and it still doesn’t work.”
From acupuncture to myofascial manipulation, alternative treatments for common running injuries abound. In fact, nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults seek a wide range of treatments in complementary and alternative medicine outside of conventional care. These treatments often overlap, as chiropractors, massage therapists, physical therapists and acupuncturists often employ similar techniques, such as joint manipulation, massage or trigger-point therapy.
“Just because there are so many approaches, it doesn’t mean that any one is wrong. However, they may be applied at the wrong time, or not enough,” says Sheridan, who’s been treating runners for 16 years. He promotes a holistic approach, not favoring one treatment over another. “If all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
Here’s the lowdown on four popular alternative treatments — just in case you’re among the 50 percent of recreational runners who will get hurt this year.
The scoop: This age-old practice involves a massage therapist applying pressure to soft tissue, generally with their hands, but occasionally with their elbows or feet. Sure, it feels good, but this therapy is used to alleviate pain, increase relaxation, and reduce stress.
“Massage loosens up tight muscles, flushes out toxins, and can reduce inflammation, leading to quicker healing times,” says Meghan Arbogast, a massage therapist in Corvallis, Ore.
The science: Last year, one small study examined the effect of post-exercise massage. It found that after a bout of strenuous activity, massage reduced the production of cytokines, compounds integral to inflammation, in fatigued muscles. It also helped cellular mitochondria, which use glucose to help repair cells. While this study demonstrated that massage both reduces pain and expedites the healing process, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports that scientific evidence on how massage therapy affects the body is limited.
Best for treating: Soft-tissue injuries, such as strained hamstrings, Achilles tendinitis or calf cramps.
Look for: A licensed or certified therapist (some may be certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork); sport-specific experience; deep-tissue and trigger-point techniques.
The scoop: Needle phobes, be warned. Acupuncture, a procedure that’s been around for thousands of years, most commonly involves inserting very thin metallic needles into the skin to stimulate specific points on the body. Traditionally, this practice draws on techniques that have evolved from ancient Chinese, Japanese or Korean practices. Within the realm called Eastern Medicine, acupuncture focuses on Qi, or the energy that flows around the body. By targeting specific points on meridians, a system of “rivers” mapped on the body, acupuncturists aim to restore smooth Qi flow when it is blocked or otherwise compromised.
Another treatment often mistakenly called “acupuncture” is dry needling, or “dry needle acupuncture.” Dry needling involves poking holes in trigger points or areas with poor blood supply, such as tendons. This “creates a controlled pro-inflammatory response,” Sheridan says, to promote healing.
The science: As the World Health Organization reported decades ago, acupuncture can decrease pain associated with running injuries. Some studies show that both real and “sham” (or placebo needles) acupuncture reduce pain, but others show a marked difference in “real” acupuncture.
Best for treating: ITB syndrome, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma, tight hamstrings and piriformis issues. Plus strains, drains and tears, says Lolane Glundal, an acupuncturist and runner in Manlius, N.Y. “It can’t repair a tear, but can help a person through surgery if that’s the case,” she says. “It’s about strengthening neighboring channels to support the injury.”
Look for: A licensed practitioner (requirements vary by state, so look for someone with significant training, Glundal says — and it doesn’t hurt if they’re a runner).
The scoop: By focusing on myofascia, the supportive and connective tissue that protects muscles, this manual soft-tissue treatment addresses “knots,” or painful restrictions in mobility. Inflamed injuries, biomechanical inefficiencies and other factors influence a runner’s range of motion. This deep-tissue treatment, which includes Graston Technique, Stecco Fascia Manipulation, and Active Release Technique (ART), involves either passive or active participation by the patient, and often specific instruments.
The science: Studies demonstrate that manual fascial manipulation releases “knots,” and with massage, can alleviate pain.
Best for treating: Soft-tissue injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, runner’s knee and shin splints.
Look for: Licensed and certified practitioners who also practice chiropractic, physical therapy, or another structural treatment; sport-specific expertise; Graston, Stecco or ART practitioners.
The scoop: Honing in on the relationship between the spine, joints and other parts of the body’s structure, chiropractic care generally involves manipulation or adjustment of the spine and joints to improve alignment, reduce pain and promote healing.
The science: Although most research of chiropractic care looks at spinal manipulation (which has been shown to alleviate low back pain), studies demonstrate that it may help treat lower-extremity joint conditions. It has also been shown to increase hip extension in runners.
Best for treating: Chronic injuries, such as IT band syndrome, runner’s knee or low-back pain, that result from biomechanical inefficiencies.
Look for: A doctor of chiropractic degree from a Council on Chiropractic Education–accredited program; sport-specific training; experience evaluating runner’s biomechanics; whether they provide additional complementary practices.
This article was first published in Competitor magazine and on Competitor.com.