Many of the NFL’s toughest players are looking to acupuncture to stay strong and healthy.
Credit: Photograph by Dan Saelinger

New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson was headed to the playoffs last year when a pair of bruised ribs threatened to put him on the sideline. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Richardson is one of the most successful and merciless blockers in the league. But instead of turning to the phalanx of traditional medical experts that most players have relied on for decades, Richardson puts his healing in the hands of a woman wielding tiny needles. "I'm the type of guy," says Richardson, "I see a needle and it makes my skin cringe. But I let her stick me with 80 needles before the game so I could go get the job done."

Richardson, who has been in the NFL for 17 years, credits that longevity and his quick healing time to Lisa Ripi, an acupuncturist who ministers to the fullback as well as to Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison, New England Patriots defensive end Marcus Stroud, and at least 30 other NFLers. "I can point to a spot and say, 'Lisa, can you get this, too?'" says Stroud, who sees Ripi for shoulder pain. "Before that, it used to be just ice and heat."

Throughout professional sports, from football to baseball to tennis and track and field, a growing number of players are turning to acupuncture to treat injuries, cure musculoskeletal imbalances, relieve muscle tightness and pain, and alleviate dozens of non-sports-related health problems – including allergies, stress, depression, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome. In recent years, acupuncture has become more widely accepted by all of America, not just by pro athletes, as a way to treat sports injuries as well as more serious health concerns. Even the U.S. Army has started using acupuncture to help care for wounded combat vets in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American College of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine estimates that nearly 20 million Americans have tried acupuncture, while the number of acupuncturists almost tripled between 2000 and 2010. There are currently 16,000 acupuncturists in the U.S.

Ripi's method is a subset of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) known as New American Acupuncture, which focuses on the release of trigger points, or hyperirritable spots in the muscle, by identifying tense
areas and inserting up to 200 needles in one session (traditional acupuncturists can use as few as three). Needling the body forces the connective tissue around the pin to contract, stimulating blood flow and releasing endorphins, which act as powerful pain relievers. Inserting acupuncture needles may also trigger the production of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that plays a part in our response to pleasure and pain, which is why some patients feel high after acupuncture therapy. According to the World Health Organization, "acupuncture's effective rate in the treatment of chronic pain is comparable with that of morphine."

Not only effective in easing pain, acupuncture can also help the body overcome one of the toughest hurdles to healing: inflammation. In 2010, neuroscientists at the University of Rochester in New York found that needling muscles sends adenosine, a natural stimulant for tissue repair, to the site of punctured tissue. Other studies have shown that adenosine can reduce inflammation – the cause of many physical ailments. Acupuncture may also alleviate stress, largely thanks to the endorphins that needling releases.