One of the most common questions I get asked is how acupuncture can help treat musculo-skeletal disorders. While there are many thoughts and theories about how acupuncture can improve the human body’s functions i.e. Qi/energy, release of neurotransmitters from the brain, improved blood/ lymph circulations to eliminate toxins, etc… I am going to try and explain it simply as it pertains to the musculo-skeletal system and how it can improve the body’s overall movements. This is the explanation I use on my patients and people I come across because it is very simple to understand and very simple to explain it to others.
First, let’s take a quick anatomy lesson and learn about something called the fascia. It is a band or sheet of connective tissue (mostly collagen) below the skin which attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs. There are three types of fascia layers: superficial, deep, and visceral or parietal fascia. For our purposes, we will only be discussing the superficial and deep ones.
Fascia is made up of fibrous tissues which are closely packed bundles of collagen fibers. They are set in a pattern aligned to a specific direction of pull i.e. muscle contractions and movements. These fibrous tissues are very flexible and can typically resist great single directional pulls. As stated above, the two types of fascia that applies to the musculo-skeletal system are the superficial which pertains to the lower portion of skin layer and the deep which goes through and covers the muscles, bones, nerves and blood vessels of the body.
The fascia basically acts as a covering that surrounds the muscles. If the fascia is loose and flexible, the muscles where both blood vessels and nerves travel through, are also loose and free to communicate. When the fascia becomes tight, the muscles also become tight causing restricted blood flow and impingement of the nerves.
A simple analogy to understand how the fascia works is to look at a raw sausage. Sausage is nothing more than ground meat (muscle) inside a casing (fascia). If the casing is too tight, the ground meat inside will soon develop into the oblong shape of a sausage that we’ve all become familiar with. If the casing is cut or very loose, the meat inside is very loose as well, almost having no physical shape or form. When the muscle fascia is tight and stiff on a person, some common physical ailments and complaints include tightness and stiffness of the muscles, nerve impingement, numbness or shooting pains down extremities, restricted movements of body parts, malpositioned or poor positioning of the body, and many more. Once the fascia is released, the muscles become loose and flexible which equates to increased movements and flexibility. This can lead to improved blood and nervous circulation to keep the body healthy and active.
There are several methods and treatments that can loosen the fascia such as manual therapy, corrective exercises, and even stretching. However, these treatments can take a long time to see positive effects or may not be the best method at all. The reason for this is that they are not actually piercing into the skin and the fascia. A sharp object is needed to pierce into the skin and fascia to loosen the muscles quickly and effectively. If we are to use our sausage example, we can try to pull, grab, squeeze, and push the sausage in all different directions and force but it will take a long time to break that casing. Now compare that by using a sharp object such as using a knife or a fork, the casing will break more easily when these equipments are used.
The reason why acupuncture is so effective in treating musculo-skeletal disorders is that the needles can penetrate into both the skin and fascia to loosen it up very quickly. Once this is achieved, the muscles become looser and more flexible causing increased mobility and range of motion. If we look at it in terms of sports performance, this can increase an athlete’s speed, prevent injuries, improve endurance, and increase strength. If we were to look at in everyday life, acupuncture can help a person develop a better posture, better physical balance to prevent falls, improved movements from physical injuries, and prevent future re-occurring injuries.
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