In the relentless pursuit of excellence, athletes continually push the boundaries of their physical capabilities. But the road to athletic mastery is not without its challenges, and injuries are an inevitable part of the journey. Traditionally, athletes have relied on conventional physical therapy to recover from these setbacks and regain their competitive edge. However, when Ben Shelton walked onto the U.S. Open courts with cupping marks on his shoulder, the 20-year-old tennis phenomenon reignited the discussion about alternative therapy practices.
Shelton joins a growing number of athletes venturing beyond the realm of traditional rehabilitation, seeking alternative approaches that offer unique benefits and accelerate their path to peak performance. So much so that athletic organizations like the NBA and NFL have invested in alternative health practices and platforms, making it accessible for more players.
“We are always seeking new knowledge, technique, and tools to ensure that NFL athletes are treated with the best possible care,” said NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills in a press release.
As the demands of modern sports become increasingly intense, the quest for faster recovery, enhanced strength, and superior agility has led athletes to explore innovative and unconventional methods of physical therapy like cupping, acupuncture, and more. These alternative approaches, often inspired by ancient healing practices, are reshaping the way athletes recover and perform.
Often recognized for the large circular bruises it leaves behind, cupping is a form of therapy believed to remove negative pressure from the body. This therapeutic practice reportedly dates back centuries and is most commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. However, unlike in Asian medicine, where cupping is used as part of health check-ups, athletes use cupping to address blood flow, muscle stiffness and pain and improve muscle regeneration between games.
Cupping therapy places special cups over the skin and uses heat or air to create suction, which pulls the skin and blood vessels. Sheldon may have revived interest in the therapy, but Shaquille O’Neal documented going to an acupuncturist in 2000 for cupping treatments during his tenure with the L.A. Lakers.
Acupuncture, originating from ancient Chinese medicine, involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points of the body. This practice aims to stimulate the flow of energy, alleviate discomfort, and facilitate the body’s natural healing processes, all while balancing the body’s vital energy, known as “qi” (pronounced “chee”). This practice is also believed to help with pain, fatigue, infertility, headache, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Athletes like Kobe Bryant have used acupuncture as a complementary therapy to support their physical well-being. In Bryant’s case, he reportedly used acupuncture to manage pain and aid in injury recovery throughout his basketball career. The technique can help reduce inflammation, relieve muscle tension, and enhance overall recovery, making it a valuable tool for athletes seeking natural and holistic methods to optimize their performance and maintain peak physical condition.
Reiki is a Japanese healing practice designed to promote relaxation and stress reduction and support the body’s natural healing processes. Based on the belief that energy imbalances can cause physical and emotional distress, Reiki treatments involve “laying on hands,” an action in which the practitioner channels energy through gentle hand movements that are intended to promote healthy energy flows.
Athletes like Ja Morant have reported using Reiki as a complementary therapy to enhance their well-being. Morant, who faced suspension after encounters with law enforcement, has integrated Reiki into his wellness routine to reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and maintain a balanced state of mind.
“I’m in a space where I’m very comfortable,” said Morant in an interview. “I was constantly talking to therapists. I’ve been doing Reiki treatment. I’ve been doing anxiety breathing, different stuff to help me manage that and release all that stuff from my body.”
This practice can help athletes manage the demands of their careers, optimize mental and physical performance, and facilitate overall holistic wellness.
Unlike acupuncture, dry needling is a modern Western medical practice used to treat physical pain. Though both practices involve the insertion of needles, dry needling does not work to balance energy within the body. Instead, it uses needles and electrical stimulation on an affected muscle or “trigger point.”
According to medical experts, dry needling can be used pregame, postgame, during halftime or an intermission, or following an injury” and can “bolster athletes’ health and possibly improve sports performance.” Hence, Anthony Davis of the Lakers and former Steelers player James Harrison have reportedly used dry needling as a recovery treatment.
One of the most popular and mainstream forms of alternative therapy is chiropractic care. This holistic healthcare approach focuses on musculoskeletal pain, typically in the spine and nervous system.
Athletes like Tiger Woods, Venus Williams, Michael Jordan and more often turned to chiropractic care to address injuries, improve joint mobility, alleviate pain, and enhance overall performance. Chiropractors can help athletes by optimizing their musculoskeletal health, reducing the risk of injuries, and facilitating quicker recovery when injuries do occur.
Haniyah Philogene is a multimedia storyteller and Lifestyle reporter covering all things culture. With a passion for digital media, she goes above and beyond to find new ways to tell and share stories.
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