In this series, HoopsHype looks at the great lengths NBA players go to protect their bodies and maximize their effectiveness. We previously talked to NBA players about cryotherapy. Now we go behind the scenes with players and coaches to learn more about acupuncture, which NBA players have been using for years.
Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine in which fine needles are inserted into the skin in order to stimulate certain parts of the body. The practice dates back to approximately 100 BC and it’s prevalent in traditional Asian medicine. Acupuncture has been used for many conditions, but it’s most known for relieving pain, loosening muscles and reducing swelling.
Some NBA franchises have used acupuncture for decades, and many players who have tried the treatment (or dry-needling, which is similar) swear by it.
Retired players like …. Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Charles Barkley, Yao Ming, Grant Hill, Jeff Hornacek and Kevin Johnson among others reportedly used acupuncture during their playing days to enhance their recovery.
Shaq first tried acupuncture in 2002, when his big toe started acting up before the playoffs and he was determined to do whatever he could to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their third straight championship. Later, he would use acupuncture for a number of other ailments, including a hamstring issue. When his hamstring started causing him pain, he told a reporter, “I’ll get some acupuncture and get rid of it. I’ve always been a connoisseur of ancient medicine.”
In 2008, Yao returned to China after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot while in the United States and, on his trip home, he consulted with top experts and added acupuncture to his treatment plan. Some doctors argued that it was unlikely to help the 7-foot-6 center, but it was also determined that it wouldn’t hurt. Any relief or results that Yao experienced from the sessions would be beneficial, as long as he continued the traditional rehab process as well.
This is how many trainers feel about acupuncture. While some people may question the science behind it, the general consensus is that it can’t really hurt players who want to try it alongside traditional treatment. As long as it’s performed by a trained acupuncturist who’s using a sterile needle, the only real side effects are bleeding and mild bruising.
One Western Conference coach who spoke to HoopsHype under the condition of anonymity said that even if the benefits are largely mental, why not support it if it’s still helping players and not causing any problems?
Several players opened up about their experiences with acupuncture and dry-needling, and most had nothing but positive things to say about the treatments.
“The first time I did acupuncture, it was part of my recovery after I tore my Achilles [in 2012],” five-time All-Star and 2004 champion Chauncey Billups told HoopsHype. “The guy I went to for my rehab suggested that it would be good and help with some of the swelling and stuff like that. I tried it and it did work really well. It helped the swelling and took some of the pain away, so it became a weekly thing for me for a while. I don’t love needles, but I was at the point where I was like, ‘Shit, I just want to get better. That’s what pushed me to do it, and it worked well. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty cool.”
“I was probably in my second or third year in the NBA when I started using acupuncture,” 11-year veteran Jared Jeffries said. “I had been hearing guys talk about it and how much it helped them, so I tried it. It was for my knee, and I’d heard that it would help certain muscles around my knee relax. I went to see an acupuncturist when I was in Washington and I liked it. I was looking for an alternative way to relieve pain and loosen the muscles, and it worked.”
Phoenix Suns shooting guard Jamal Crawford is 38 years old, but you’d never know it watching him play. Two years ago, the three-time Sixth Man of the Year played in every single game for the Los Angeles Clippers (regular season and postseason). Crawford told HoopsHype that he started using acupuncture a while back and continues to rely on the treatment to this day. With his consistency and longevity, the 19-year veteran could be acupuncture’s poster boy. But it’s worth noting that Crawford also ices his body after every game, stays away from alcohol, doesn’t smoke (he says he has never even tried it) and tries to avoid high-contact plays on the court. In other words, acupuncture is just one part of Crawford’s successful regimen.
During the playoffs, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green uses acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion and other forms of alternative medicine to increase circulation, loosen muscles and relieve pain. (Watch below to see Green’s treatment.)
When asked if acupuncture hurts, Billups and Jeffries explained it similarly and stressed that the relief far exceeds any pain from the treatment.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Billups said. “It’s not that painful. Sometimes you feel it more than others, depending on where it is or, I guess, how far they put the needle in. But it’s never really painful. It’s not something I was dreading like, ‘Oh man, I have to go get acupuncture today.’ It’s not like that.”
“It stings a little bit, but it’s not like they’re jabbing the needle in; they just tap it in,” Jeffries said. “Once the needle is in, it doesn’t really hurt. Overall, I wouldn’t say it hurts. It’s just a little bit of discomfort.”
After retiring, Jeffries became a pro personnel scout for the Denver Nuggets. He said he has noticed that a number of Denver’s younger players use acupuncture as well, especially since Denver’s Director of Sports Medicine Steve Short is a trained acupuncturist. He encourages other athletes to be open to alternative medicine because he’s seen that it can relieve pain and extend careers in some instances.
“Each player should try to find a form of alternative medicine that might help them,” he said. “You have to be creative because you play so many games. It’s a long season.”
Billups would also tell today’s NBA players to experiment.
“I would recommend it,” Billups said. “The only reason I’d recommend it is because I’ve seen it work for me. It’s not like I’ve read about it or heard about, I’ve seen it work. I helped me through my Achilles recovery, so I would definitely recommend it.”
Myles Turner hasn’t tried acupuncture, but he does do dry-needling, which is similar. Dry-needling is relatively newer, but it also involves the insertion of thin needles to relieve pain.
“When I first got into the league, I had tendonitis and my knees were bothering me pretty bad,” Turner told HoopsHype. “I hate needles, so I had never really been into that stuff. But I was basically forced to try it; one day, my trainer just did it and started dry-needling my quad. My knee instantly felt better, it was a lot looser. Now, anytime I get knee tightness, I do it and I see the benefits of it immediately.
“They just poke and prod the muscle with the needle, and a typical session for me would be about six or seven needles. They would be in one at a time, and it would take about five minutes or less. A lot of my veteran teammates did it too. Last season, CJ [Miles] did it quite a bit and so did Monta [Ellis]. It was just the guys who needed some extra attention in certain muscle areas.”
Written by: By Alex Kennedy | December 30, 2017