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Roy Blount Jr.
June 05, 1972
Despite its skeptics, the practice of acupuncture has produced several satisfied customers in sport. One day soon we may all be yelling...
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June 05, 1972

Quick, Nagayama, The Needle

Despite its skeptics, the practice of acupuncture has produced several satisfied customers in sport. One day soon we may all be yelling...

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Most trainers and team physicians in this country either know nothing about acupuncture or are against it, or both. The great majority of American medical men and athletes alike still scoff, if they have heard of them, at the notions of Yin, Yang and Ching Lo (though they have no difficulty accepting Ping-Pong). It is not likely to happen soon that someone in a dugout will yell "Stick it in his ear!" and a sore-armed pitcher sitting beside him will say, "That reminds me, I see by The Journal of the American Medical Association that the German Society of Acupuncture reports 'amazingly rapid remissions brought about in cases of long-standing severe rheumatic pain by insertion of needles into the external ear and leaving them in situ for periods varying from 10 minutes to six hours.' "

But at least seven prominent U.S. based athletes have recently had needles inserted into various of their alleged Ching Lo points, and most of them have reported that it made them feel somewhat better. Certainly the claimed applications of acupuncture are relevant to many of the most common and frustrating ailments. The question of acupuncture in sports warrants poking into.

Eons ago, the story goes, Chinese warriors found that when they were pierced by arrows in certain parts of their anatomy they felt better (than they had before) in other places. Early Chinese medicine men kept track of these puncture points, described by 12 Ching Lo channels or meridians connecting them all, and eventually substituted needles for arrows, explaining the whole system according to the Yin-Yang theory of Taoist philosophy. Thus acupuncture, along with various herbal remedies, became the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine. Over the centuries acupuncture spread in various forms throughout Asia. Within the last 30 or 40 years it has attained some status in Russia, England, Germany and especially France, where an estimated 600 practitioners give more than a million treatments a year. Several French hospitals permit acupuncture to be prescribed and administered.

Then last year, thanks to Ping-Pong, Americans began to visit China. James Reston of The New York Times had post-appendectomy pain relieved by acupuncture, and several prominent U.S. doctors came back impressed by such anesthesiological sights as that of an acupunctured patient chatting and eating a can of fruit while his chest was cut open. The President's personal orthopedist reported seeing acupuncture used to cure the Chinese equivalent of tennis elbow.

In New York and elsewhere acupuncture research projects are being set up. Some responsible U.S. medical men are beginning to believe not only that acupuncture can work but also that the way it works may not be all that inscrutable. Pain-suffering U.S. athletes-including such notable patients as Willie McCovey and Sam McDowell of the San Francisco Giants—are beginning to add it to the list of remedies they will try.

On the other hand, the prevailing attitude in the athletic training room is one of skepticism. "I predict that acupuncture will have a growth in popularity and then fall off," says Baltimore Colt Trainer Ed Block. "It's similar to these fad diets." But Block concedes that the points at which acupuncturists insert needles might be the same as the "trigger areas, the referred areas of pain," which he has mapped out on a chart and which he treats with massage and ice.

"We do not use acupuncture, have not and do not anticipate using it," says Philadelphia Eagle Trainer G. E. (Moose) Detty. Still, in 1956 Detty saw a Taiwanese runner's pulled hamstring—an injury that is liable to keep an Eagle out for two or three weeks—cured in a few days with acupuncture, and ever since Detty has been collecting literature on the subject. He has a large acupuncture library that includes a copy of The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, written over 2,000 years ago. But most of Detty's books are in French or Chinese, neither of which he can read.

Ed Lothamer, the 270-pound defensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs, lost his skepticism altogether. Lothamer had no idea that he would soon be decorated with gold and silver needles, silver balls, inked Xs and pink tape when he first met Dr. Kunzo Nagayama, president of the Pain Control Institute of Kyoto, Japan, who was in Kansas City visiting a chiropractor friend, Dr. Richard D. Yennie. Lothamer, who spends a good deal of time at Dr. Yennie's judo-karate school, had been suffering stiffness and recurrent pain in his lower back for some eight months—ever since he felt something snap there while he was lifting 500 pounds from a squat. And recent bouts with the flu had left him with a low energy level, commonly known as the blahs. Drs. Nagayama and Yennie suggested he try acupuncture.

"I was skeptical about it," Lothamer says, "but then I decided, why not? First Dr. Nagayama said he wanted to take my pulse. Take off your shirt,' he told me.

"It turned out he wanted to take my pulse not on my wrist but at various places on my back. He patted it all over and said I had good circulation in my upper back but that it wasn't so good down lower."

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