Left knee and Acupuncture: New hope from the East?

I had an acupuncture treatment for my left knee on Thursday afternoon. It went well and I can’t wait to get back in for my second tomorrow.

Maybe I should bring everyone up to speed on what’s wrong with the knee. First, I had about 1/3 of my patella tendon removed at the end of college. I wasn’t functioning properly, hadn’t healed over 2 years, and was sort of like a rubber band that had lost it’s elasticity. Frayed. That’s how the orthopedic doctor described it, and so we went ahead with the removal. Which isn’t that bad of a surgery, as we all have twice as much tendon there as we need.

From 2002-2005, my first years in the Army, I couldn’t run. I had to take the alternate physical fitness test, which didn’t really matter much anyways because I was deployed for so long over that time period. That’s when I started to run again, more and more miles each year until last April I had the re-emergence of the pain in the top of the knee cap. Frankly, I’ve tried everything to get it to leave. Massage, stretching, anti-inflammatory cream, some time off. I took May and June off this past year, but recognizing that I needed to race the TransRockies Run, I allowed myself to run through the pain. A note on that ~ I’m still shocked that Paul and I finished 4th at that event. I ran 115 miles over 6 days in Colorado’s mountains with a really bad patella tendon.

Which begs the question: how bad could it be if I could do that? Patella tendinopathy/tendinitis sort of saps your quad strength. It disallows you from using your quad to support the knee. In turn, you have to use other muscles to compensate. I would put most of my weight on my right leg. I could use more calf and more hamstring to stabilize each step and bound. Over time, it degrades other, surrounding muscles. When I finally decided it was time to rest the knee, after the Team WWP season was over, I could barely lower myself to sit down in a chair ~ the left leg just wouldn’t allow me to do it.

So, last October I went to see a traditional sports doctor. He took xrays, gave me the diagnosis that I expected, and told me to back off running and do an eccentric knee bend (at a decline angle) twice a day for rehab. We also tried two blood injections. Essentially, he injected my left knee at the point of greatest pain (top of the left kneecap) with a large needle/syringe filled with my own blood. The idea is that the pain is in the tendon, the tendon is not functioning properly and they don’t carry much, if any, blood in them. Muscles heal quickly, mostly because they carry blood. So…if you can get/force blood into the tendon, it should heal the tendon quicker.

My two injections were very uncomfortable and felt like a bad bruise to the knee for the following 3 or 4 days, both times. And, they helped only marginally. It’s really hard to tell if improvement is made, as it’s made so gradually. The improvements are so small…micro level, at best. I know the knee isn’t as bad as it was last October. But it’s still not better. It’s still not the same as my right knee.

Enter acupuncture. My wife Rachel has gone many times during her ballet career for a variety of injuries. For some reason, we never really talked about it. Maybe she felt that I would be skeptical: I’m on record that chiropractors are one-trick ponies that can help some ailments, but that they claim too much success. Of course, all that really matters is that someone finds improvement, so if you go to a chiro and it goes well, that’s all that matters.

I have, however, never been skeptical about acupuncture ~ I’ve just never been exposed to it. It’s the preferred medicine of choice for 1.2 billion people, likely more, so it must have something to it. And, more importantly, if Western medicine (the sports doc) chose to treat me by stimulating blood in the tendon ~ isn’t that pretty much what acupuncture would do too ~ only with a smaller, more precise needle?

So I went in (Rach came along to see how it went), and the doctor couldn’t have been nicer. He had been trained in Shanghai, and teaches Tai’chi and Kung Fu here in Wellington. He placed one needle in my quad and one in my shin, along my body’s “meridian.” The he found the point of greatest pain in the kneecap and placed two needles there. Going in was uncomfortable, but not painful, per se. However, once they were in it wasn’t painful at all. He left me to lay there with the needles in for 25 minutes, with a bio-energy (heat) lamp on the knee. When the time was up, he came in, removed the needles, rubbed the knee, and put a herbal cream on it.

I have felt a micro improvement in the knee. It’s not better, to be sure, but the acupuncture doctor said that it would take three treatments. As I mentioned, I go back tomorrow for #2. I’m hopeful that there is continued improvement ~ he said he had seen this problem many times before and had had great success with the condition. We’ll see next week ~ I’ll post how things are going and how successful the treatment is. I’ve still got my skeptical eye…I won’t be convinced until we’re done. But hope springs eternal.

And this is something I had known about, heard about, that was successful at pain management. I won’t be able to evaluate that, as I’m going for a specific treatment for a more-or-less mechanical problem, but certainly if one is successful then there’s potential for the other (where there’s smoke there’s fire). Perhaps Western medicine could learn from the East? Western medicine has tried to quantify and assess acupuncture to little success ~ it seems that it’s difficult for an apple to study an orange. Are there applications for the wider public, for veterans from war? I’ll get more into that next week.

All my best & Keep moving forward, Matt

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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