Need to needle

In the weeks leading up to the Junior Olympics in water polo, Allison Vreeland’s ’08 shoulder pain was intensifying with each daily four-to-six hour practice in the August heat. She found herself in a dilemma: she could not stop playing because of the importance of the tournament, but the pain from over-usage was upon her each time she shot the ball.

With her mom at her side, she soon found herself in a different kind of doctor’s office, dimly lit, with fountains in the waiting room. She had already tried physical therapy and taking time off, but described both treatments as “temporary.” Vreeland’s last resort was a shot in the dark: she tried acupuncture.

“My mom’s friend recommended acupuncture, so I decided to try it, and it’s been really helping,” she said. Vreeland now gets acupuncture once a week.

With the changing high school landscape, where the best athletes practice year-round and on multiple teams, ACL tears in young athletes are commonplace, and students are plagued with stress from a variety of other activities, as reported in a recent article in the New York Times. Therefore it is no surprise that students are turning to treatment that is off the beaten path.

Vreeland herself is a year-round athlete, playing five days a week almost all year: in the fall she trains for an hour-and-a-half a day, in water polo season for up to three hours a day, then in swim season for two hours a day.

“The thing for athletes is that you can’t ever really just stop playing,” Vreeland said, which is why she believes acupuncture is the best fix, since physical therapy is often time-consuming and is more preventative.

Though acupuncture is considered a new alternative medicine in western cultures, it has an over 2,500-year history, according to the Los Angeles Acupuncture and Wellness Center website. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles on the body’s surface in order to manipulate body function. The ancient Chinese believed that the life energy “Chi” circulated through the body along pathways called meridians. If energy cannot “flow” along the meridians, pain occurs.

“The beauty of acupuncture is if it’s going to work for you, it will work right away,” Dr. Igor Boyarsky, specialist in emergency medicine, said. “It will take three or four treatments for there to be an effect. Most other treatments require time.”

“When my acupuncturist starts talking about ‘Zen’ or the ‘Chi’ it makes me question it,” Vreeland said. “Even now when I go in they have an orb ball. I’m almost embarrassed about the fact that I believe in it, but it works.”

Vreeland said she has noticed acupuncture is an upward trend with athletes, noting that her acupuncturist’s son’s high school baseball team members almost all receive treatment. Rather than for overuse from sports, Danielle Naghi ’09 gets acupuncture for tendonitis in her arms from writing too much in school. She usually gets acupuncture around the end of the year when the pain is the worst. Alistair Belton ’09 tried acupuncture once for soreness from weeks of lacrosse practice, but considers acupuncture more psychological.

“I would compare it to meditation in that if you believe it works then it will, but for me there were no lasting results.”

Vreeland advises students to be comfortable with needles and to expect some pain, but also to have a little faith.

“As Harvard-Westlake students it’s hard for us to believe in things that are not a ‘hard science,’” Vreeland said. “But as long as the person is comfortable without hard evidence they should be great with it.”