April 11, 2022
In a recent continuing education course, AIMC Berkeley hosted Dr. Jenny Nieters, DACM, LAc., for a day of Grand Rounds. In addition to her private clinic in Alameda, CA, she is the team acupuncturist for the San Francisco 49ers Football Team and the Saint Mary’s College Men’s Rugby Team. She has built a career treating world-class athletes, including Olympians, NBA, MLB, MLR, NFL, and amateur athletes including runners, cross fitters, triathletes and swimmers, supporting injury recovery and athletic performance.
Acupuncture for Sports Performance
Many people know Acupuncture can be used effectively to treat chronic and acute pain, but did you know it can also enhance sports performance more broadly? During our day of observation of Dr. Nieter’s treatments, we watched Dr. Nieters muscle test a patient’s core, discover “sluggishness” as she called it, gently stimulate a handful of acupuncture points, and re-test. And, voila, the “sluggishness” disappeared and the patient’s core was ready to go for a big sports event the next day. We watched a similar sequence of events for what Dr. Nieters called a “snoozy” adductor. When joking that a muscle is sluggish or snoozy, Dr. Nieters is referring to a muscle that seemed inhibited or slow to fire when tested, and then looking for evidence that the muscle could fire quickly with speed and strength after it was treated.
A Sports-focused Acupuncturist like Dr. Nieters will adjust their treatment strategy around a patient’s training & event schedule. Close to an event, she uses fewer needles & a more gentle approach so that little recovery is needed from the impact of the needles; her goal is to make sure that a person is ready in body, mind, and spirit for their event. This could mean activation of the parasympathetic nervous system so the athlete can head into the event calm and clear; providing support for a known injury and ensuring as much healthy range of motion as possible; or making sure that muscles are “turned on” and ready to fire. In the days after a big event, Dr. Nieters works with the athlete to meet their needs, which might include recovery from a crude injury, helping with blood flow and microcirculation for recovery, clearing inflammation and acute edema, or pain management.
So how does a Sports Acupuncturist figure out where to put the needles? If you come into an Acupuncturist’s office pointing to your knee and telling us it’s in pain, you might expect us to stick a bunch of needles in that knee. While it may be the case that some needles can and should be used on and around that joint, you might be surprised to find that we’re also incorporating needles on your feet or hands, back, chest, abdomen, and even on the ear to support you & relieve the pain in your knee! The first step to choosing the most supportive points is a thorough assessment looking for the root cause of pain.
“If something is tight, that might not mean we need to go in and release it. Why is it tight? Could it be because something else is weak, and the tightness is actually protective? If you find and activate that weakness, the tightness will resolve itself.”
To make her assessment and build a treatment plan, Dr. Nieters relies on a number of senses and tools:
- Listening: First and foremost, Dr. Nieters is always listening to the patient’s concerns and assessing where the injury or pain is as well as where the patient is psychologically.
- Observing: Dr. Nieters watches her patients move from the moment they walk in the door. She may have spotted a hip drop or reduced arm swing by the time the patient has even arrived at the table.
- Testing: With a clear picture of someone’s concern and how they move, Dr. Nieters then often reaches for Orthopedic exams to further clarify the clinical picture.
- Palpation: Using her knowledge of Western medical anatomy as well as of the channels and points of East Asian Medicine, Dr. Nieters is always using information she finds under her fingers to guide treatment.
Pain in a joint or muscle can come from many different places: trigger points, muscle chains, and agonist/antagonist sets of muscles can all create referrals of pain or tension. For Dr. Nieters, it’s not enough to notice where a muscle is tight– she wants to assess why it’s tight. If there’s tightness of the gastrocnemius or soleus in the calf, is it because there’s an actual mechanical issue with the tissue– like an injury, tear, or some scar tissue? Or, could it be because the gastrocnemius and soleus are compensating for weakness somewhere else in the kinetic chain? If there’s back pain & tension, is it due to core instability? Moving through the steps of her examination can help her answer these questions & find the best course of treatment.
Dr. Nieters uses exams that would be familiar in a physical therapy or osteopath’s office to assess what muscle, tendon, or ligament may be the true cause of discomfort. She evaluates range of motion, performs muscle tests, and frequently uses Orthopedic exams, such as the Hawkins-Kennedy and Empty Can tests for shoulder issues.
During our day of observation, Dr. Nieters flowed from assessment, to treatment, to re-assessment seamlessly throughout each treatment. She reached for a number of different tools throughout the day: most frequently used were of course acupuncture needles, but there were also topical applications, silicone cups, and various types of e-stim machines. Each of these tools allows an Acupuncturist to bring more Qi, blood, & lymphatic circulation to an area and stimulate the body’s internal healing mechanisms. Students were amazed that she could treat one muscle with two or three needles, briefly run some gentle electrical current through the tissue, remove the needles, and then re-evaluate and find dramatically different results.
It’s More than Just the Muscles
While she works closely with Western sports medicine providers and speaks their language fluently, she hasn’t cast aside the language and wisdom of Traditional East Asian Medicine — whether her patients realize it or not. She’s working with athletes on the body, mind, and spirit level. For example, she acknowledged the stress and pressure that high-level athletes face and noted her most frequently used Acupuncture points to treat these aspects of the “spirit”. One might expect a Sports Acupuncturist to be primarily focusing on treating the “Sinew” level in East Asian Medicine, but Dr. Nieters explained that she’s constantly working on more than one layer, from the “sinew” level to the “primary channel” level and even at the level of the 8 Extraordinary Vessels. One of our greatest gifts, she said, as Acupuncturists working in Sports Medicine is that we can marry Osteopathic wisdom with the beauty of the Acupuncture channels and system; we can choose points that will work simultaneously on multiple levels to support an athlete.
Connect with Dr. Nieters
When she’s not on the sidelines of rugby or football games, you can find Dr. Nieters at her clinic Alameda Acupuncture where she sees patients 3 days a week. You can follow Dr. Nieters on Instagram to follow her many adventures in the world of Sports Acupuncture.
Ready to learn more?
Licensed Acupuncturists can learn more about Orthopedics in AIMC Berkeley’s Doctoral Completion program. Additionally, AIMC Berkeley plans to bring Dr. Nieters back to teach another day of Grand Rounds open to all Licensed Acupuncturists– join our CEU mailing list to find out when registration is open! Lastly, Dr. Nieters’ teacher, Whitfield Reaves, offers a 6 month apprenticeship program where Dr. Nieters co-teaches.
Ready to start your journey into integrative sports medicine and curious if AIMC is the right place for you to become an Acupuncturist? Explore our Master’s and Doctorate programs or attend our next Open House to learn more. Fill out this form to join our Admissions Information mailing list & receive announcements about upcoming Open Houses and Application deadlines.