Can Acupuncture Benefit Bicyclists?
Down from the trees, into the highways and byways of the Hudson Valley
When human beings descended from the trees, they immediately jumped onto their first set of wheels, and promptly spilled over the handlebars. Thus was initiated the eons-old love affair of bipeds with bicycles.
The human being was not built for this. Even the larger-size brain, one of humanity's hallmarks, became a liability as the head began to average some eight to twelve pounds. Supported, in a typical touring position, by muscles never designed for that particular kind of duty, like trapezius and levator scapula in the upper back, holding one's head through a day on one's two-wheeled steed can create stresses and strains. And if you are a New York City bicycle commuter, you know how this strain can be multiplied.
Bicycle bliss, muscular strain
Bicycling can be blissful. But many riders find themselves hurting at the end of the day.
For one, cyclists often ride bicycles that are not fit well, and they strain in positions that, if set up better, would lend themselves to greater efficiency and comfort.
The muscles of the back-the paraspinals along the length of our spines and quadratus lumborum in the low back-often suffer after days in the saddle. Calf muscles-soleus and gastrocnemius-are constantly relaxing and contracting. In fact, this is what they were made to do, but unless they are stretched regularly these muscles will become tight and banded, making them not only less efficient but perhaps painful as well, and subject to injury.
Our evolutionary heritage notwithstanding, bicycling is really good for you. It defines low-impact, high-aerobic exercise, and it is exhilarating to the spirit. Getting there "on your own steam" is worth the wear-and-tear on your trapezius!
Acupuncture and the bicyclist
Acupuncture works by moving obstruction and allowing the body to regain the homeostatic balance which is responsible for the health and vitality that connote the quality we call "life" in all living things. At every moment, the body is in flux at every level; the innate wisdom directing this flux is what acupuncture treatment taps into.
On the energetic level-the subtle effects of acupuncture that defy immediate analysis but which, once experienced, become the true aim of treatment-acupuncture augments the vitality which bicyclists know as the sustaining element in their riding. Combining core-level needling to build essential energies with local needling to relieve symptomatic stress or pain is one of the major strategies in acupuncture treatment.
Two bicyclist acupuncture points
Xuehai Spleen 10 is located on the "pear" at the bottom of vastus medialis, the muscle that bulges superior and medial to the kneecap. This pear-shaped landmark is emblematic of the conditioned cyclist. Coincidentally, Spleen 10 is tonified in order to invigorate Blood, but the bulge in a leg toned from riding signifies that it is already tonified.
Bicyclists know that cycling builds vigor. For instance, the "average healthy person" according to David Perry in the authoritative Bike Cult, has a maximum volume of oxygen uptake (VO2 max) of 35-55 ml/kg. while a recreational cyclist has a VO2 max of 55 to 80 ml/kg. Perry cites VO2 max as "the best test of cardio-vascular efficiency." 
The ancients had no way to test VO2 max but instead found by trial and error that inserting needles into the body along agreed-upon pathways led to certain outcomes, for instance, Blood that has been "invigorated," as must be the case when oxygen uptake is maximized. Here is a place where exercise physiology and Chinese medicine seem to be tangent.
Another acupuncture point, Zusanli Stomach 36, is often used to renew a person's energy. It is located on another landmark of the leg, the shallow dome at the top of the tibialis muscle, inferior and lateral to the kneecap.
Zusanli means "Leg Three Mile," connoting that one can walk (or pedal) an extra three-or three hundred- miles by needling or warming this point. All acupuncture traditions make use of Zusanli; it is one of the most commonly used acupuncture points. In Japan, it is said that one should not go hiking with someone who has not applied moxa to Zusanli.
Muscular trigger points
Unless the cyclist takes the time to carefully stretch all the muscles that have been stressed during repeated bicycle rides, they may eventually grow less elastic, tighter, and may eventually develop bands. Rub your hands crosswise against your leg, arm or shoulder muscles, and you may feel such "rubber-banding," an indication that you aren't stretching as often as you should. Once bands develop, stretching won't help them loosen easily, unless the stretching is done on a regular basis in a yoga class. Trigger points can develop, too, hypersensitive nodes that are often tender to the touch, and associated with a banding in the muscles, that may cause both local and referred pain. Trigger points also reduce muscular efficiency.
Some typical areas of pain associated with trigger points include the shoulders through the base of the skull, and the lower back through the gluteal muscles. They can also cause abdominal pain, for instance, for cyclists who ride clipped into their pedals.
Acupuncture can be used to release these points of exquisite tenderness. It is not unusual, when experiencing trigger point needling, to feel the muscle "give" as these focal points of strain are unblocked. One advantage in treating trigger points through acupuncture is that many local areas of tightness can be relieved in one session.
Core and symptom, root and branch
Trigger point needling is a form of local needling, from an acupuncture perspective, although some trigger points cause pain and loss of function at sites distant from their location. Acupuncture is almost always a local and distal affair, meaning that when we treat the problem locally we also treat it at a distance-say, treating the foot to treat the head-for any number of reasons. One reason is to treat the root as well as the branch.
"Root and branch" is a metaphor which comes from a view of nature that embraces the human being as part of the natural order. Like a tree, a human being also has roots that bring life to its branches. I will reserve another space to explain this in detail; it is enough to simply say, in the current context, that each individual's shoulder, neck or knee problem is different from the similar problem of his or her neighbor, and devising a treatment strategy involves discerning these differences to treat the underlying energetic tendency, the root, as well as the presenting symptom, the branch.
In short, cyclists of the world, local needling at the site of pain in conjunction with needles at a distance from this area, can both treat your sore neck and provide a boost to your core-level combustion engine, relieving strain and building energy for the next ride.
1. Bike Cult. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995. p. 215.
Copyright 2008 Mid-Hudson Acupuncture