• Kristin Bignell - PT, MScPT, BScES(hons), CMAG

Neurofunctional Acupuncture: The Key to your Recovery and Optimal Performance



Neurofunctional Acupuncture:

A specialized application of acupuncture used to stimulate the peripheral nervous system, evoking concurrent changes in movement, function and symptoms.

A highly effective way to treat injuries, maximize performance and minimize injury risk.




At East Mill Physio, my treatments rely heavily on the proficient use of Neurofunctional Acupuncture (aka Contemporary Medical Acupuncture or Electroacupuncture). While the technical skill of acupuncture needling has many similarities across practitioners, the method of application and the underlying philosophy of the practice can vary significantly.


Neurofunctional Acupuncture can effectively be used for:

  • Treating pain problems

  • Injury management

  • Supporting sport performance (Read here for more information)

  • Improving injury resilience

  • Restoring function and movement

Its effectiveness and ability to evoke concurrent (i.e. immediate) changes in movement and symptoms is based on its ability to influence the function of the nervous system. Our nerves are responsible for controlling most of the automatic and voluntary actions that keep us alive and allow us to move and perceive the world. Nerves carry the signals to our muscles that allow us to move. They also relay information from our surroundings, back to our brains, so that we can process our environment. It can be helpful to think of nerves like messengers, carrying electrical signals from one place to the next and using chemicals to relay important information and support the health of surrounding tissues. It can sometimes be helpful to think of your nervous system like a series of highways. Now imagine there is an accident, or that there is flooding that has overtaken the right lane. You can still get to your destination, but less efficiently.


We can think of nerves in a similar way. When there is an impairment of the nerve or its environment, information can still get from one point to the next, but less effectively. Additionally, when nerves become irritated, they secrete different chemicals that result in unfavourable changes to its surrounding environment. This disruption to the neural environment can alter the signals that the nerve carries. This could result in a muscle not generating appropriate forces simply because the signal is not optimally getting from the brain to the muscle. This dysfunction can occur as a normal consequence of our daily activities or due to an injury.

Dysfunction in the nervous system can therefore lead to movement disorders (i.e. not moving efficiently), muscle weakness (i.e. not conducting a full signal to the muscles being used), muscle tension (abnormal signalling to a muscle when it should be at rest) and/or pain. This can happen due to an acute injury, an old injury or any other insult that causes direct injury to the nerve or a change in the environment around the nerve. We ALL have these dysfunctions, ranging in severity, and these dysfunctions can be detected and then treated using a Neurofunctional Approach.

Neurofunctional acupuncture involves placing very fine needles (+/- a small electrical current) near specific peripheral nerves with the goal of restoring their function.

Acupuncture stimulation has scientifically been shown to cause the release of various chemicals that are important in analgesia (i.e. pain relief), blood flow and nerve function (Lu & Lu, 2013).


Some of these important chemicals include:

  • Endorphins: chemicals produced by the brain which act on the opiate receptors in the brains, to reduce pain and improve feelings of well-being

  • Serotonin: a neurotransmitter involved in modulating mood, cognition, reward, learning, memory and pain modulation

  • Enkephalins: a chemical involved in regulating nociception (a component of pain) in the body

  • Adenosine: acts as a local analgesic, suppressing pain (Goldman et al., 2010)

  • GABA: a neurotransmitter that inhibits, certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system, reducing neural excitability and regulating the flow of sensory information

  • Norepinephrine: inhibits neuropathic pain

  • Dopamine: modulates pain perception

  • Nitric Oxide: causes dilation of local blood vessels, improving blood flow to tissues resulting in delivery of analgesic substances to the tissues and removal of irritating waste products (Ma, 2017)

These findings provide a scientific basis for the powerful effects seen following acupuncture treatment. By improving the neural environment and changing pain, we can improve and preserve function.

The acupuncture points selected for a Neurofunctional Treatment are determined based on the findings of your individual, neurofunctional physiotherapy assessment. This involves a combination of specialized muscle testing and trained palpation of ALL areas of your body... NOT just in the symptomatic area! The needles cause local metabolic changes which normalize the neural pathways of the affected nerves by improving circulation and restoring normal electrical conductivity. With time, this helps to restore muscle strength, improve movement ease, promote better movement coordination and decrease pain. This is extremely effective for the treatment of injuries, pain problems and for improving function and performance in active individuals! Another bonus? These changes can often be sensed immediately following treatment.


Neurofunctional acupuncture is an often under-appreciated tool that, when applied skillfully, can restore function in the nervous system, effectively improving pain and performance. Neurofunctional Acupuncture should serve as the foundation in any injury rehabilitation or Performance Care treatment plan.


About the author: Kristin is a Registered Physiotherapist and the Owner of East Mill Physio in Elora, ON. She has a special interest in Neurofunctional Acupuncture and Sports Performance. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally believe to be possible with respect to injury rehabilitation and performance optimization by using a holistic treatment style. Kristin trained in Neurofunctional Acupuncture at the Contemporary Medical Acupuncture Program through McMaster University and is currently completing her second year of training to become an Instructor in the Acupuncture Program. The information presented in this article is her interpretation of what she has learned to date. To learn more about East Mill Physio, visit www.eastmillphysio.ca.


References:

Acupuncture. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/acupuncture


Goldman, N., Chen, M., Fujita, T., Xu, Q., Peng, W., Liu, W., . . . Nedergaard, M. (2010). Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture. Nature Neuroscience, 13(7), 883-888. doi:10.1038/nn.2562


Lu, D. P., & Lu, G. P. (2013). An Historical Review and Perspective on the Impact of Acupuncture on U.S. Medicine and Society. Medical Acupuncture, 25(5), 311-316. doi:10.1089/acu.2012.0921


Ma, S. (2017). Nitric oxide signalling molecules in acupoints: Toward mechanisms of acupuncture. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 23(11), 812-815. doi:10.1007/s11655-017-2789-x


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